Training a puppy to stay can save her life, and the “down and stay” simply adds duration to the length of time she holds the position. Sometimes just a ten-second delay can keep your rambunctious puppy from racing out the gait into oncoming traffic.
A more formal requirement of the down and stay, though, is found in training for competition. For example, the novice class for obedience trials requires a dog to hold the down-stay position for three minutes while you’re quite a distance away—and while the other competing dogs do the same. That takes lots of practice on both the pup’s and the trainer’s part.
A three-minute (or longer) down-stay may be a bit too much to expect of very young pups. It’s important not to set your baby dog up for failure by expecting too much, too soon. But you can teach the concept of “stay” now and then practice for duration as your baby dog’s compliance increases with matures.
Learning to down-stay also helps your puppy learn to cool her jets when visitors arrive, for example, or to control the jumping up on children or knocking them down and mouthing people that can prove dangerous. That’s especially helpful with puppies that are big, or that will grow to great size. Even if you know she means no harm, any dog that frightens someone else can be at risk for getting you—and herself—into trouble. Here’s how to teach a down-stay.
- Train in a low-distraction area. You want your puppy to learn the concept easily, and once she knows that, you can add challenges with distractions (other dogs present, people, noises) much later. But in the beginning, train in a quiet room or yard without other people or pets present.
- Choose a high-value reward—something she absolutely loves, like a special treat or toy. But also have a lesser-value but welcome secondary award handy. If she loves treats but also enjoys a toy, perhaps the treat can be the high value reward and the stuffed bear serves as the secondary reward.
- Speak with authority so your puppy knows you mean business. Give the command, “down” and lure her into position with the treat, but don’t give it. Her nose should contact the treat as she lowers herself into position. When she’s already learned the “down” command with clicker training, you can simply give the cue (word/hand signal) to get her in the down position.
- Once your puppy assumes the down position, command “stay” and give her several high-value rewards one after another—treat-treat-treat-treat—to prevent her from jumping up out of the stay. Start with a five-second “stay” and then give your puppy the a pre-selected release word you always use (“okay!”). Then you give her a puppy-party of celebration along with the secondary (toy) reward. In this way, your puppy will associate never-ending treats with “stay.” The release word should be associated with the secondary (less of a “wow” reward) so there’s no confusion and the BIG pay-off is for her stay.
- Continue to practice the down-stay. If she breaks the down-stay before you release her, tell her, “uh-oh, you blew it!” and turn your back and hide WOW-reward for a ten-count. Then try again, but be sure this time you adjust the timing to a shorter “stay” duration so she can be successful. The key is to reward success, and reduce the chance of failure.
- Over time, bit by bit increase the duration of the down-stay in two second increments. Keep a record of her success rate so you can up the ante once she’s reached an 80 percent success rate on a previous session.
- It’s a good idea to reduce the stream of rewards to a taste every few seconds. Eventually you want her to perform without rewards anywhere in sight (or sniff range). Remember to stay close to your puppy until she reliably performs a down-stay for a minute or more at a time, without a treat.
- Only after she’s become reliable in close work should you increase the distance. Give the command and then back away one step as you hold the treat. If she breaks the stay (that means if she sits up, stands, follows you), say “uh-oh, you blew it!” and turn your back with the treat. Give her a minute for the consequences to make an impression before you start over.
- Wait until she’ll reliably hold a down-stay while you take one step away, and only then challenge her by taking two steps (wait until she’s reliable at that distance) and increase to three steps—and so on.
- Gradually phase out both the primary and secondary rewards until she receives treats for successful down-stay only intermittently. That increases the chance she’ll perform reliably, because instead of lots of tiny tastes she should get a BUNCH of treats every once in a while, unexpectedly. If she never knows when she’ll win the jackpot your dog strives harder to be reliable in the hope that maybe this time she’ll win the doggy treat lottery.