How to teach your dog to stay

Fun with dogs
Written by Rosie BescobyRosie is a fully qualified Clinical Animal Behaviourist with a degree in Zoology & Psychology and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling. She is an ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist, a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (No. 1006), and registered as both a Clinical Animal Behaviourist & as an Animal Training Instructor with the Animal Behaviour & Training Council. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

Obedience is a vital part of good dog ownership. Not only will it build a better relationship between you and your pup, but it will help to keep you and your dog safe, as well as any other people and dogs you encounter. One of the most important commands you can teach any dog is “stay”. In this post, we’re going to explain how to teach a puppy to stay.

After you’ve mastered some of the basics, like “sit”, you’ll want to move on to commands like “stay”. Teaching a puppy how to stay is really important in managing their impulse control, keeping them under control, and even in keeping them safe.

How to teach your dog to stay

How to teach your dog the "stay" command

The first step is to get your puppy familiar with the “stay” command.

This is the most important part of their training, as it is the foundation work for the behaviour you want from them.

With your puppy right in front of you, get them to sit or lie down. Once they are in position hold your hand out towards them with an open palm facing forward, like you’re making a “stop” gesture. As you do this, say “stay”.

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Hold your hand out and maintain eye contact for as long as you need the puppy to stay still for. Only hold the stay for a few seconds when you begin training, 3 seconds max.

After you’ve counted to 3, relax your hand and give them a release word. This will cue your puppy that they are allowed to relax again.

Then, reward and praise your puppy for holding the stay.

To recap, you should be following this pattern:

  1. Make the dog sit or lie down.

  2. Say “Stay” and give the hand gesture.

  3. Count to 3.

  4. Release the stay.

  5. Praise your puppy!

When you first start any training, it’s important not to overload your dog, or set them up to fail. That’s why it’s important to only hold the stay for short periods of time to start with. It won’t take long before you begin increasing the duration and difficulty gradually.

A note on release words

A release word is an important part of teaching your dog to stay, and often forgotten. Your dog should hold the stay for as long as they need to until you tell them it’s okay to come back. A release word simply lets them know they don’t need to hold the stay anymore.

Often, simply releasing your hand and saying something like “ok” or “good job” will let them know they’ve finished, and so they will return to you. It’s pretty instinctive. But by adding a specific release word, you will train your dog to keep hold of the stay - even if you relax - until you tell them to stop.

A note on hand gestures

As a little aside, you don’t need a hand gesture, but it helps to catch the puppies attention. It also gives your dog another cue to do the command.

This means if you are ever in a situation where your dog can’t hear you, as long as they can see you, they can still do what you tell them. (In some cases, this can prove life-saving!)

Start to make the stays more difficult

Now your puppy knows how to “stay” it’s time to start introducing the 3 Ds which make it more challenging. These are duration, distance, and distraction. It’s really important to teach them to maintain a stay despite any of the 3 Ds.

Because they add further challenge to the command, it is really important to only introduce them one at a time when training.

Duration: How to teach your puppy to stay for longer

The first D to introduce is duration, teaching your puppy to stay for longer periods of time.

Once your puppy can hold a stay for a few seconds, start increasing the time. Increase it in tiny increments at first.

To do this, simply train them as if you were teaching them to stay as normal. Get them to sit, give them the hand signal and say “stay”. Then, simply count to 5 instead of 3, before releasing the stay and praising your pup.

If your puppy seems to grasp it, you can try increasing the time even more. Go from 3 seconds to 5, 5 to 10, until eventually, you can get your dog to hold the stay for about 30 seconds.

Once your dog can hold the stay for about 30 seconds, you will both be confident with the command. At this point, you can start introducing distance to the stays.

If your puppy gest the fidgets

If you start trying to get your pup to stay for longer and you can see they want to move, don’t wait for them to break out the stay. Instead, stop it early and praise them, particularly when they are young and still in the early part of their training. You want to almost catch them doing the good behaviour and reward it.

How to teach your puppy to stay at a distance

Next, you’ll want to teach your puppy to stay at a distance.

Just like when you start teaching your dog to stay, it’s important not to try and do too much too soon. This means when you start teaching them to stay while increasing the distance between you, you need to keep the distances and the time to hold the stay short to begin with.

First of all, you want to get your dog in position as normal and tell them to stay.

After you tell them to stay, take a single step away. Maintain the hand gesture, as it will maintain the command. It’s like a reminder for your dog of what you want them to do, even as you start moving. Then, walk back towards your dog and release them from the stay.

Don’t forget to praise them!

Just like you gradually increased the time they held the stay before, now you want to gradually increase the distance.

Start by taking a step back, then 2, then 3. Before long, you’ll realise you can get your dog to stay from several feet away.

To recap, you should be following this pattern now:

  1. Make the dog sit or lie down.

  2. Say “Stay” with a hand gesture.

  3. Take a step away from the dog, maintaining the hand gesture.

  4. Walk back to your dog.

  5. Release them from the stay.

  6. Praise them for a job well done.

What to do if your dog tries to move

If your dog keeps standing back up a little prematurely, try to get them back into position before rewarding them. For example, if they have a habit of standing up as you walk back over to them, just get them to sit again before rewarding them. It gets them into the habit of holding the correct position and staying completely still until told they can move again.

What to do if your puppy keeps following you

If you find your puppy is keen to follow you, even when you are only taking a single step away, adjust the exercise. Go back to making them stay as normal, with you right in front of them. Then, simply lean back. This is one way of increasing the distance between you without giving the dog as much of an urge to need to follow you. After that, you can build up the distance as above.

Combine distance and duration

Once your dog seems to have cracked doing longer stays and stays at a distance, it’s time to challenge them and combine the two.

For this, get your dog into position and tell them to stay as normal. Take a couple of steps back, maintaining eye contact and the hand signal.

Once you’re a few feet away, count to ten. (Don’t try to do it for too long, you want to set your pup up for success!)

Then as always, walk back to your pup and release them from the stay. If they’ve done well, give them a big reward, they’ve earned it!

How to teach your puppy to stay despite distractions

Finally, introduce the last D, distractions. Teaching a puppy how to stay despite distractions is difficult, but it is also the most important. This is because it means you can control your dog in situations where they might try to run off.

As always, you want to set your puppy up for success. Don’t make it too challenging for them. Teach this independently of long stays or distant stays until you’re confident your puppy can do them all. That means, for now, you will be back in front of your puppy and keeping the stays short.

Now you will need to introduce a distraction, something that usually would tempt your puppy. For example, their favourite toy.

As always, get them sitting in a position facing you and tell them to stay with the hand gesture. Maintain eye contact and the hand gesture to keep their attention and remind them what you want them to do. In your free hand, hold up their toy. After a few seconds of staying, release the dog from the stay and reward them.

If they seem really focused on you, increase the challenge. You can do this by simply squeaking the toy while they are being made to stay.

Hopefully, they will stay sitting. If they glance at the toy, that’s okay, as long as they don’t try to move and they do return their attention and eyes to you.

If they manage to hold the stay for a few seconds and look back at you, even when you squeaked their toy, release and reward them.

To recap, this is how to teach your puppy to stay despite distractions:

  1. Make the dog sit or lie down.

  2. Say “Stay” with a hand gesture.

  3. Squeak their toy.

  4. Hold the stay a second or two after the distraction.

  5. Release the stay.

  6. Reward your puppy.

Increase the challenge

From here, this training is quite a high level. This might take a while to achieve.

As your puppy gets better at staying, you can gradually increase the level of challenge.

To do this, while they stay you can squeak the toy twice instead of once. If that is still too easy, try getting them to stay while you move the toy in your hand.

You want to gradually increase the level of temptation, and build up the distraction.

Combine all your stay scenarios

Eventually, when your puppy seems focused and confident with the command, you can try combining the distraction with some distance.

Get them to sit and stay while you walk a few steps back, stand still and squeak the toy, then walk back to the dog and release the stay. If they stay put despite the distraction, reward them.

Eventually, when your dog is confident with the stay command, distraction, and distance, you can start to really challenge them. Get your puppy to stay while you walk away. Then, squeak the toy and drop it. The additional movement is really tempting, but hopefully, your pup will stay put.

As always, if you expect they are going to break the stay, go back to them and release them quickly. You would much rather end it early and get to reinforce the good behaviour.

Mastering the stay command

One of the biggest challenges is to get your dog to stay when something more exciting is moving around. In real life, it could be a bird or a squirrel. You want them to be able to ignore this distraction and do what they’re told.

To practise this in training, stand or sit with your dog, staying close to make it a little easier for them. Get them to sit and stay as normal.

Then, take their favourite toy and throw it a few feet away.

Your dog, naturally, will want to run after it and fetch it or play with it. And for the first few attempts, they may do this. Just remember to be patient, and don’t reward them if they break the stay. If they do break the stay, just go to them and recall them, and re-focus their attention on you.

If your dog doesn’t seem like they’re going to stay in the face of this distraction, wind it back, and return to other stay training exercises.

However, if your dog is confident with all the other scenarios, and is good at returning their attention to you, they should stay even in the face of this temptation as you throw the toy.

Get your puppy to stay, throw the toy, and if they haven’t broken the stay after a second or two, release them from the stay and really reward them. Staying despite temptation like a toy, and distraction like movement, is a huge accomplishment.

If you want to go even further than this, get your puppy to stay, and walk away, then throw the toy. They should stay where they are. If they do, release them from the stay and reward them. From this point, you need only increase the duration of the stay, and they’ve really mastered the command. In fact, that’s all there is to ‘stay’!