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Training your Labrador puppy to stay will give him an important life skill that will serve you both for the life of your dog. A strong 'stay' can keep your puppy from getting into trouble or moving towards danger.
'Stay' is also a trick that falls under the “Impulse Control” category, which refers to any behavior that helps your puppy realize that she can’t just be pushy and get what she wants all the time. It is a way to show her that patience can earn her a big reward in the end. This is an especially important skill for Labrador puppies, given their notorious rambunctiousness for their first 2-3 years of age.
In this guide, we will explore three different methods to train your Labrador puppy to stay. Both the “Clicker” and “Mat” method will give him the basic skills to stay. If you want to make his stay very strong and reliable, move on to the “Proofing” method for advanced skill building.
Decide on a Hand Signal
The most common hand signal for this behavior is to raise an open hand towards your dog, holding for the length of the 'stay' verbal cue. However, you can make the hand signal whatever you want it to be. By practicing both at the same time in your training sessions, eventually' the hand signal or the verbal command will work to cue the stay behavior.
Decide on a Position
If you would like your Labrador puppy to always be in the same position when he stays (sitting, lying down, standing up) then you can reinforce that by always asking for that position first before proceeding with your 'stay' training. If he breaks the position during the stay, don’t reward him. Just start over, ask for the position, and then give the 'stay' command again.
On the other hand, if you want him to stay in whatever position he is in when you give the command, then only reward stays that maintain that position, ignore those that do not, and immediately start over with a new 'stay' drill.
Release WordYou will always teach 'stay' in combination with a release word. Most professional trainers use “Okay!” but you are welcome to choose what works for you. The main thing to keep in mind is that you will never reward your dog if he breaks the stay before the release word.
This is training that more or less requires the use of food rewards because they are easy to repeat quickly without disrupting the focus of your training session. “High value” food rewards are special foods your puppy really loves--small bits of hot dog, cheese or chicken. However, feel free to use some of his daily kibble ration mixed with just a few high-value rewards for training sessions.
Almost all Labrador puppies are extremely food motivated. So, training with food is usually very effective. Once you have fully trained a behavior, you can start to reduce the rate of reward to select only choosing the top 10% of any behavior to reward. This will refine the behavior as well as decrease the need to have food rewards available at all times when asking for behaviors she already knows.
Success is Your Job
When training any new behavior, it is your job as a trainer to break behavior down into small enough components that your dog can be successful. If he is failing to meet your criteria several times in a row, it is not because he is stupid, it is because you are trying to advance too quickly.
The Clicker Method
Click or mark
The purpose of the clicker is to “mark” the right behavior, giving you some time to then reward after the fact. It is a great tool to use when training stay. If you do not have a clicker, you can still use this method. Simply select a marking word that you will always use when training to “mark” the right behavior, always followed by a reward.
Start with your Lab puppy right in front of you. Say “Staaaay” in a drawn-out tone while using your hand signal. Wait one second, click/reward. If rewarding while in the stay, always bring the treat to your dog so they are not encouraged to break the stay before being released.
Repeat the previous step, extending the duration as she is ready. At this point you are just extending time, not distance. Once he is staying for 10 seconds (it may take several sessions) then you are ready to proceed to the next step.
At this point you are ready to start practicing the release word. About one in three times practicing 'stay' as mentioned in the previous steps, give the release word then toss the reward away from her so she will go and get the reward. If she breaks the stay before the release word, do not reward, ignore, and start over with a new stay.
Start to add some distance between you and your puppy during the stay. Start with a half step and just a few seconds, very gradually (over several sessions) adding some distance and continuing to extend time. Remember that puppies are limited in terms of attention span. Expecting more than a 20 second stay for a 12-week-old Lab puppy is unreasonable.
Move on to proofing
Once you have a reliable 20 second stay, with you getting at least 15 feet away, then proceed to the 'Proofing' method to strengthen her 'stay' skills.
The Mat Method
Choose a mat
Some people find training their Lab puppy to stay on a mat is a great way to teach a stay that will easily translate to new environments. Make sure to select a mat that is easy to take with you, such as a welcome mat that you can roll up and tuck in the car for travel.
Get on the mat
Start training in a familiar indoor space such as your living room. Without giving any commands, lure your puppy over to the mat, click or use your marking word to let him know he is on the right track when he gets to the mat, followed by a reward.
Say “Staaaay” in a long drawn out tone, along with your hand signal while your dog is on the mat. Take even a short second of a stay before marking/rewarding. Repeat until he is staying on the mat for 10 seconds reliably.
Add the release word to your training. Start by leading your puppy to the mat, giving your stay command, and rewarding for a 10 second stay. Pause a few seconds then say “Okay!” and then toss the treat off the mat. Repeat 10-20 times.
Duration and new places
Extend the duration and your distance from the mat, gradually. In addition, move the mat around and practice in new places. If your dog breaks the 'stay' before being released, ignore him and start over.
The Proofing Method
Once you have trained your Labrador puppy to stay, it is time to start practicing this behavior in higher distraction environments. Ultimately, your goal is to get a reliable stay no matter how much is going on in the surrounding environment. When working in unsecure areas, be sure to use a long leash or rope (25-50’ in length) to make sure you can get her back under control in a hurry for safety.
Practice in new places. Expect to start back at a shorter distance and time to let your dog be successful in a higher distraction environment before extending both.
It is important your Lab puppy learns to 'stay' in the presence of other dogs. Start this training in familiar spaces (such as your back yard) with familiar dogs (such as a regular playmate). Over time you can continue to improve on this skill by working on her 'stay' at a nearby dog event such as Agility Trials where you can expect to find plenty of unfamiliar dogs.
Another way to improve his 'stay' is to start going out of his eyesight when doing stay drills. Of course, start by turning a corner for just a second. Gradually extend duration and distance, making sure your Lab puppy is successful at least 80% of the time
You should also find some outdoor spaces where it is safe to let your Lab puppy off leash to practice his 'stay'. You can use a long rope tied to his collar or harness in order to make sure you can grab him if he tries to run off in pursuit of a squirrel!
Eventually, you will want to add an enforcement mechanism for the stay command. It is critical that your dog already has a strong grasp of the behavior, and you have spent some time proofing it before adding a consequence. A harsh tone, a “Time Out” in their crate, or a “Hard Ignore” are all techniques that positive trainers use to impose a consequence.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 02/22/2018, edited: 01/08/2021