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
How To Train Down!
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.
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.
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.