The Importance of the Stay
While not as obvious as Sit or Lie Down, Stay may very well be the most important command your dog learns. After all, there will likely be times you want your dog to remain where he is, such as when a new guest arrives at the door. But there may be times when knowing the Stay command can save your dog's life. Imagine if he starts to chase a ball into a busy street, or begins running after a dangerous animal. At any rate, Stay should be taught as soon as possible, and practiced frequently.Prerequisites
While it's important to teach Stay early, let's stop and think for a moment. From the human perspective, we think of "stay" as "freeze," or "don't move." And ultimately, you want you dog to understand it the same way. However, don't expect that right away. Dogs see things more literally that we do, so it's easier to teach Stay as an extension of another command, like Sit. Once your dog understands the idea of Stay after he has responded to Sit (the "sit-stay"), you can branch out into the "down-stay," and finally the standing stay. You would have a much harder time if you started with the standing stay, which is typically the toughest one to master. Generally, though, once your dog grasps the standing stay, he has understood that "stay" is universal.
So, make sure your dog has learned to sit on command, then move on to the Stay.
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There are several methods for teaching Stay, and every trainer will have his or her favorite. Many trainers dislike using treats in training, but some non-treat trainers will in fact use treats to teach Stay. The logic is that you will likely use the Stay command to get your dog to freeze and stop doing what he's doing or about to do, which would typically be something he really wants to do. That in fact may be eating food that fell on the floor, the cat's food, etc., so using food to teach Stay isn't just a motivator or treat... it's also a mechanism to trigger behavior (get the food) so that you can train against it (stay, don't get the food) and teach your dog to respond to your command over his own motivation.
Start by having your dog sit. Then, facing him, hold a treat at his level, about a foot away, while putting your other hand, palm forward, in front of him and saying "stay." Most likely, he will stand and start to take the treat. If so, simply remove the treat and turn away. Wait a moment and repeat the process. Once you see the light bulb just start to go off, when he holds the Sit for just a few seconds, give him the treat while saying "get it" or "release" and then praising and rubbing him. Repeat the process to reinforce, but not for more than 10 to 15 minutes.
Once your dog has gotten the hang of staying when you're right in front of him, it's time to get some distance in there. Begin by taking just one step back as you give the Stay command. As he continues to show understanding, keep gradually increasing the distance.
If you do use food in this exercise, it's important to move to non-food Stay training, once your dog has the hang of it. Simply omit the treat when giving the Stay command, and use praise as the reward. You can then start mixing things up, like teaching him to hold the Stay when you drop a toy in front of him, or when someone sits down next to him. The more varied the situations you can create, the more likely your dog will grasp the "universal" concept of Stay, which, after all, is the goal.