Training 'stay' vs. 'wait'

Use different verbal cues for different behaviors

Holding still and remaining in one place is an extremely useful skill for most dogs to do on command. Because dogs don’t generalize as easily as humans do, for them to be successful, it is best to be very specific about your criteria for every verbal cue so that your dog knows what you expect of them.

We tend to use two primary variations of "holding still" with our dogs:

  1. Wait: Hold back temporarily and then releasing. This is usually for situations like asking the dog to stay back while you carry things through doors, or trying to open their crate door all the way before they blast out. It doesn’t matter what position they are in, and they won’t need to hold that position for long.
  2. Stay: Hold a position until you return or release. This is usually for situations like sitting out of the way while guests enter the house, or staying while you cross the street to get the mail. Your dog is supposed to stay exactly where you left them, and they should hold that position until you return.

Kate Basedow '13, L.V.T., has been training dogs and competing in a variety of dog sports for more than 20 years. To differentiate between these situations, she uses two different verbal cues:

“For my dogs, ‘wait’ means stay where you are temporarily and wait for further instructions. In competitions, I might use ‘wait’ for the start of an agility run where I want to get ahead of the dog a bit, or when I leave her to do a recall in obedience. At home, I use ‘wait’ so that my younger dog doesn’t knock over the senior going out the door, when I am lowering a food bowl to the floor, or when I am picking up poop. ‘Wait’ is a temporary pause where my dog can expect a release or another command very soon,” says Basedow.

“‘Stay’ means the dog should settle in and wait for me to come back to her,” says Basedow. “At some levels of obedience trials, there are 'stay exercises' where the dog needs to hold a position (usually sit or down) while the handler walks away. In day-to-day life, I use ‘stay’ for situations where I want it clear to my dog that she is to wait for me to come back. This might be while I grab the mail to keep her away from the road, or at meal times if they are being a nuisance.”

By teaching your dog the two separate cues, they will know that “wait” means that they should still pay attention to what you say next, while “stay” means they can just settle in until you return.

“The exact words you use don’t matter,” says Basedow. “You can use whatever verbal cue(s) you want, as long as they make sense to you, and your dog knows what you mean by each one. I just happen to use ‘stay’ as my more robust stay command, whereas ‘wait’ is a more transient behavior.”

Don’t forget the release word

One piece that many dog owners forget when trying to teach their dogs to 'stay' or 'wait' is also to teach them a release word.

“She needs to know when she’s allowed to move again!” says Basedow.

Three commonly-used release words are “okay,” “break” and “free.” Saying your release word in an excited, up-beat tone is an extra signal to your dog that they have done a good job and can move around again.

Starting training

Training for both 'stay' and 'wait' starts the same. Wait until your dog is still (or tell them 'sit' or 'down'), pause a second or two (keeping the time short to guarantee that they stay still), then calmly praise and reward. Repeat several times, gradually increasing the length of time. Keep praise calm, so that your dog doesn’t get overexcited and prone to break position.

When you have done this little game several times, start to say, “good stay,” when you praise and reward. You can start working this cue in at the beginning of the 'stay' as well, and introduce a hand signal (such as your hand held flat in a “stop” signal).

When your dog is able to hold this position for several seconds, you can start adding distance. Ask her to stay, take one step back, then return to her and praise and reward. Gradually increase how far you go before coming back. If your dog breaks their stay and gets up, calmly lead them back to where they were supposed to be and try again. Remember that your dog is learning, so scolding won’t be productive.

What about the release word? Work that in when you have done several repetitions and either are done training or sense that your dog needs a break. When you return and praise, then say your release word in an excited voice and jump back to encourage them to get up and follow you. Pet your dog and have a little fun. If you want to continue practicing 'stay,' just return to your previous positions and resume the work, making sure to congratulate them for doing a good job.

As you start doing longer 'stays' and walking further away, you should use your release word every time you return.

To introduce 'wait,' set your dog up and use your same hand signal, but say, 'wait,' instead of, 'stay.' Then when you have gotten a few steps away, use your release word in an excited voice to encourage your dog to get up and come to you. Gradually increase the distance and time. If your dog cheats and gets up before you release them, calmly take them back and try again.

It is often beneficial to practice both 'stay' and 'wait' within the same session, especially if your dog gets really excited about the release word. You don’t want them to forget that 'stay' means you will come back to them.

In the real world

Don’t forget to practice 'stay' and 'wait' in real-life situations where you will regularly use them. Train in different parts of your house and yard, then go to more exciting places such as parks or dog-friendly stores. Expect that your dog will have some trouble in a new environment with more distractions, so they will need some extra help at first.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.