As always, training is in the details, and there’s a lot to point out with this method.
Start with a Tired and Hungry Pupil. If your dog is hyper with a ton of energy when you start teaching this command, she’s going to be running around like a maniac, you’re going to be frustrated—and the whole process will be hard on both of you. Instead, it’s always a good idea to teach the STAY command when your dog is tired. That way she’ll be less likely to run and she’ll condition much faster. After a walk or at night is an ideal time to start working on this command. Also remember that training a hungry dog is always easier than training one who is full. You want your dog’s attention to be focused on you and the great treats you’ll be willing to share if she follows the command when you give it.
Keep Calm. Just like when you’re teaching the DOWN command, you want to stay very steady and calm while you teach the STAY. If your body language and voice are animated or excited, your dog will pick up on that and get animated and excited, too—a bad recipe for teaching her to be still. When you praise and reward her, do so with a soft, positive voice and use slow, smooth strokes when you pet your dog. Remember, the face you show your dog is the face that’s shown back to you, so if you have a lot of energy and anxiety while training, your dog might, too.
Block Carefully. The hand halt needs to be done correctly. I don’t want you to slam your fingers into your dog’s chest—and I know you don’t want to do that, either. I want your dog to run into your fingers. There’s big difference. Your hand should be like a fence standing in your dog’s way—not something that’s charging at her. Once your dog bumps into your hand, she’s not likely to do it again. Think of it this way: no creature wants to keep running into the same obstacle over and over again, but there are many—including most dogs—who love a good chase. Be an obstacle, not a pursuer. For larger dogs it might be better to simply block their path by stepping into it. In that case, your whole body is a better block than just your hands. The only drawback with this is that it takes a little bit longer to move your whole body than to raise your hand, and you must get in position in time. Focus on being speedy and your dog will quickly figure out what you’re up to.
About That Stomp. A foot stomp is a great way to stop your dog if she decides to move when you’re a significant distance away. This gets her attention just for a split second so you can get her mind back on you. I strongly advise you to use this tool—it’s one of my favorite ways to stop a dog in motion.
Take It Slow. I know you hear me say this a lot, but I only repeat it because it’s important: do not move on to a next step in this process until your dog is ready! Moving too quickly is the main reason people get frustrated and eventually fail at teaching this vital command. You may see really quick progress in the first few minutes and figure you can skip a few feet or seconds and go for the gold. Please don’t. It takes a few days to train this technique correctly, and very few dogs ever get to the final step on day one. Take it slow and your dog will learn to STAY like a pro.
Variation for Tough Cases. Instead of using a corner, place your dog on a SIT in the doorway of a dark room (so the lights are out behind her). Naturally, your dog will want to leave, but you will be blocking the doorway and giving the STAY command. Using the same process as above, back up by one foot and add one second at intervals until you’re at ten feet for ten seconds. Do a few fifteen-minute sessions each day of this and you’ll see results. The pros of this method are that it’s fast and simple and works with all dog sizes. The cons are that any technique that’s as fast as this cuts corners and can result in a sloppy STAY. This method teaches the absolute basics, but you’ll still need to bring your dog out in the open eventually to help her become more advanced and reliable.
Variation for Slow Starters. Place your dog on a couch. Have her SIT, and then follow the steps above, backing up and adding a second for every foot. This one is a home run because most dogs prefer to be on a comfy couch rather than on a hard floor. Pros: It’s fast and simple, and the couch gives you a lot of control. Cons: This teaches a kindergarten version of STAY. It works to convey the absolute basics, but I highly recommend moving on to the cornering technique once your dog has mastered this.