Updated: Feb 8
Service dogs must be trained in certain behaviors to help their specific disabled partner. If the behavior is triggered with a command (visual or verbal), it’s called a “task.” If the behavior is triggered via an environmental cue (a sound, a change in the partner’s body, etc.), it’s called “work.”
This is part of a series on various service dog tasks/work behaviors, their purpose, and how to train them. You can find a glossary of terms here and the whole list of behaviors covered (so far) here. There are so many behaviors and ways to train those behaviors, but I hope to cover the most important ones. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!
When you tell your dog to Stay, you want them to remain in the exact same position (such as Sit) and place until you release them. For a service dog, this can include hard positions (such as Stand) and/or very long wait times. If you just want them to remain in the same spot, you can use a different cue, such as Wait.
NOTE: This is NOT a Task or Work behavior, just something used to teach several behaviors and, generally, wanted to a much higher standard for service dogs.
In order to train a dog how to perform Stay, follow the below steps. Mark (clicker or “yes”) and reward for correct responses and only move onto the next step when the previous one is consistent and reliable.
1. Ask your dog to Sit. Show them your palm (the universal “Stop” symbol). Reward them multiple times for remaining in place (every 0.5-1 second). After 1-2 seconds, release them (with something such as “Free” or “Okay”).
Do NOT mark (“yes”) this behavior, as many dogs consider the behavior they’re working on finished when marked.
If your dog can’t stay in place for even 1 second, reward for split seconds first, then work your way up.
2. Add the cue: ask them to Sit, then show them your hand signal, then say “Stay.” Reward them every second or so for 2-5 seconds. Then release them.
Make sure to vary up how long you ask for in your Stay. You want to randomize the time, otherwise your dog will learn to anticipate you and break the Stay before you release them.
With the release, make sure they get up by using a large sweeping gesture of your hand, as well as the word. If necessary, you can even clap a little and encourage them to get out of the sit.
3. Now, increase the duration (slowly and in a varied manner): 2 sec, 5 sec, 6 sec, 3 sec, 3 sec, 8 sec, etc.
4. When your dog is able to Stay for ~30 seconds, now you’ll start practicing distance with them. Start by asking for Sit, then Stay, then take a step away from your dog (while still facing your dog). Immediately return to your position, reward, and release.
Do NOT add extra duration to these, they’re already harder at first!
If your dog breaks their stay when you take a full step away, only take a partial step at first, such as by putting a foot behind you, then bring it back to your position. Then move onto a full step.
5. Start increasing distance (WITHOUT increased duration) by starting to take 2 steps away, then 3, until you’re eventually able to walk 6’-10’ away. Remember to vary this up, as you did with duration: 2 steps, 2 steps, 3 steps, 1 step, 2 steps, 4 steps, etc.
Do NOT release your dog from the end of the leash. You want them to remain in their stay until you return to them AND release them.
6. Once you can get 6’ stays every time, then you can start adding duration to your distance stays by moving away and then waiting in place before returning, rewarding, and then releasing. Make sure to start with less duration AND less time to start. So, if you know your dog can do 1 minute stays and, separately, 10’ stays, still start with 5 seconds at 3 steps away.
If your dog keeps breaking the stay, decrease distance and/or duration until your dog can succeed every time. Only once they’re succeeding should you increase the duration/distance again.
7. SLOWLY increase both duration and distance, varying them both, until you can get a 30 second stay at 20’ away (slightly more than the Canine Good Citizen test requires).
8. Separately, you’ll want to start practicing distracted Stays on leash. (If you can have a helper for this, it’s great.) While standing directly next to your dog (at first), ask for a Stay, then request someone else to throw a toy or treat on the floor at a distance. If your dog keeps their stay (which you can remind them to do with your hand signal), reward them generously, then release them (and don’t let them go get that distraction!).
If they’re struggling with this, try using a distraction that isn’t as hard for your dog and/or have the distraction tossed at a further distance until they can succeed every time.
You don’t want your dog getting the distraction because that can teach them to be hyper-focused on the distraction, knowing that they’ll get it afterwards. Instead, we want them to focus on YOU, as the giver of all things fun and yum.
9. Separately, practice by switching distractions for harder ones, bringing distractions closer, or asking for your dog to Stay for a longer period of time while distractions are being dropped/tossed nearby. Remember to always set your dog up for success, so making it harder in only one way at a time (at first) is important.
10. Once your dog knows how to Stay despite duration, distance, and distraction, you can start combining them all to make things harder for your dog. For example, ask your dog to Stay, move 6’ away, and ask them to hold that Stay while treats are being dropped a couple of feet away. Of course, return to your dog’s side and reward them heavily before releasing them.
Always, always set your dog up for success. If you combine something and it’s too hard for your dog, that’s okay, decrease 1 or more of the difficulties (distance, duration, or distraction) and try again.