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How to Teach the Down Command

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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The down command is probably the most useful command that an owner can teach his dog. A dog that lies down on command to receive food and treats is showing a high level of respect for its owner. If a dog is fearful, teaching him to lie down and relax is a first and necessary step in desensitizing him to his fears. Even attention-seeking, hyperactive, and compulsive dogs can have their energy redirected by means of this simple but mentally taxing command. In addition, a dog in the "downed" position will not run across a busy main road, cannot chase cars or children, and presents less of a risk to approaching strangers. The Down command is a must, especially if behavior problems are arising or if you intend to take your dog out in public. Obeying the down command keeps your pet out of trouble and safe from harm.

The Down command

  • Quality - you want the behavior to be performed well and quickly. What you don't want is your dog putting one elbow down followed the other, while his rear is still elevated, followed by the slow sinking of the hindquarters only to have the dog suddenly pop up again. What you do want is a rapid drop to the ground, square or otherwise, with the dog relaxed and holding the position and looking at you for the next direction.

  • Reliability - you want the behavior to be performed consistently. A behavior is said to be trained when it's performed greater that 85 percent of the time following a command. However, circumstances dictate the reliability of the response. An 85 percent response rate percent is good when there are distractions around but 100 percent responsiveness is a better goal in the peace and quiet of your own home.

  • Patience - when you start training Down, you will not achieve a perfect response or the most reliable response rate immediately. It takes time and patience to achieve good results. Initially, reward an occasional sloppy down but later shape the response to the exact form that you desire. Then work toward increasing the consistency of response.

    How To Train Down!

  • Method 1. The L- or "magnet" method: All trainers of puppies and some trainers of adult dogs use food rewards for training to train the command Down! Start with your dog sitting. Then pinch a morsel of delicious food between your thumb and forefinger. Show the food treat to your dog to bait his interest and then lower your hand slowly toward the ground. The dog will follow the semi-concealed food item with his nose until your hand touches the ground.

    At this point he may have already gone down but, if not, will be hunched over, banana-shaped, with his head and rear-end close to or touching the ground. Now draw the food treat away from the dog so that he follows your fingers as you move the treat progressively further away. With luck, the dog will stretch out toward the disappearing food and will slump to the ground ... in a Down position.

    Note that your fingers will have described an L-shape with the horizontal section of the L- pointing away from the dog. Once the dog has adopted the desired position, you release the food and praise the dog lavishly. The word Down! can be added later and the form fine-tuned at leisure. Soon you will be able to have your dog perform the Down even when you don't have food. You just say the word Down! as your hand describes the L-pattern in front of the dog. The hand movement becomes a signal.

    Of course, you still reward the dog with praise, petting, or food as appropriate. The hand signal can "morph" into a downward sweep of the hand without you even stooping or bending yourself. At this point, the down is trained – but to have it performed reliably needs more work ... and you need to understand the training strategy.

  • It is important that your dog perceives you as its strong leader.
  • Training should be fun, fair, and firm (the 3 Fs) and should end on a positive note.
  • Food rewards should be delicious and should be provided on an intermittent schedule to get the most consistent results. Intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful reinforcement schedule – it's the one that keeps gamblers at gaming machines!

  • Method 2. Clicker training: This can be similar or somewhat different. You can use the L-method described above, clicking your dog either for following your hand down and away or clicking serial approximations toward the desired behavior (i.e. clicking the dog for lowering its head progressively further down and then away from its body).

    Alternatively, you can use the "capture" method whereby you mark a naturally occurring down with a click and then give the dog a treat. Effectively you train the natural behavior with the click to show the dog that you appreciate it. You can do this while you are reading the morning paper, observing the dog out of the corner of your eye and "capturing" every spontaneous down. Later in the process you can introduce a word cue, the word Down! or a hand signal, or both. At this stage the dog only gets clicked and rewarded for adopting the down position when instructed to do so.

  • Method 3. Placement: Many more physical trainers use placement techniques to expedite a dog's understanding of the word Down! One technique is to say Down! as you draw one of the dog's forelegs forward while exerting gentle sideways pressure between the dog's shoulder blades with your other hand. Lifting and pulling the limb forward has a destabilizing effect, effectively making the dog into a tripod. Pressing down and toward the destabilized side will cause the dog to sink gently into the down position. It's a simple matter of trigonometry. Opponents of this technique say that if you have to touch the dog to train it, then you will always need touch to cue the behavior.

    The Long Down

    A lot of dogs will perform a down for a moment and then spring up again. This is not particularly helpful and will not help you to control your dog when necessary. You should work on a long Down! command (i.e. Down-stay). This teaches your dog that the command Down! means go down and stay down until you give a release signal.

    Long Downs are best accomplished by means of baby steps. For example, if you are using a clicker, instruct the dog to lie down. Have in your mind that you are not going to click for, say, two seconds. If your dog moves before you click and treat, start over. When you achieve a two-second down then you strive for there seconds, and so on. The intervals can be increased exponentially once the dog has the concept that an interval is required before Down is rewarded.

    You can also try taking a pace back before clicking, then two paces, and so on, until you can positively stride away from your dog, leaving it in a down position and hanging on your next (release) word. Some people use the word 'okay' as a release but okay is a rather common word used almost inadvertently by almost anyone in the vicinity. It may be better to use a less common release word – like release or free.

    What Not To Do

    Pull the dog to the ground by means of its collar. The dog's natural reaction to this pressure is to stiffen up or resist the force. This kind of coercion does nothing to endear your dog to you and may cause some more aggressive or fearful dogs to bite.

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