Prerequisite: Loaded Clicker, Beginning Sit
What is down?
“Down” is when you ask your dog to rest with its belly and elbows on the ground. In formal obedience, the dogs back feet are under him, ready to send him flying into the next command at the snap of your fingers. For dogs being asked to lay down for extended periods of time, a more relaxed pose is acceptable.
Why is it a useful command?
There are at least five essential reasons I can think of to teach your dog to lay down on command.
1. It increases your dog’s freedom more than the longest of retractable leashes, by allowing you to take him to more public locations. A dog that is minding its own business lying down at your feet when your chilling outside Starbucks is far less likely to be asked to leave than the one shmoozing everyone in the vicinity for a pumpkin loaf, or worse barking vigorously at anyone who has the audacity to sit near by. If you want to take your dog anywhere for an extended period of time, down could become useful or necessary at any moment.
2. If you have a “dangerous” or “yappy” breed of dog and someone nearby is ranting about your breed, they look like idiots when your dog is lying passively at your heels. No one can feel uncomfortable with a dog that is just lying around looking peaceful.
3. It is what is known as an “incompatible” behavior, which makes it really useful for high-energy dogs that tend to wind themselves up easily and need a way to calm down. When was the last time you saw a dog fence fighting with the neighboring dog from a relaxed down position? That’s what I thought.
4. If there is an emergency while you are out in public with your dog, and it is something you personally need to handle, asking your dog to down in an out of the way location while you help bag that loose dog (retractable bouncing along behind him) or perform CPR on a fallen hiker could prove lifesaving.
5. Down is the signature position to show your Groomer, Veterinarian, Kennel Technician, Daycare person, or basically any stranger handling your dog that you actually know what you’re doing and probably have a nice dog. You can yell “He doesn’t bite!” all you want to, but with a good solid down you won’t have to say anything at all.
Can you have a great dog without ever teaching this command? Yes, absolutely, but down is also the base command for a large repertoire of tricks including rolling over, the army crawl, and playing dead. Since it’s a relatively easy command to teach, it makes no sense not to add it to your dog’s vocabulary.
How do you teach down?
The easiest way to teach your dog to down is to lure the behavior with treats. Place your dog in sit, and then show him a treat he really likes. Drag the treat straight down between his front legs all the way to the ground. Many dogs will lay down to get the treat right away. If your dog tries some other way to get the treat (you probably figured this out with sit, but dogs can get real creative in their attempts to get the treat before hitting on the right answer.)
You may have to try several times before he figures out how to get the treat, and it is very important to not let him have it for things unrelated to down. When he does flop down, whether it is the 1st or 10th try, click and give him the treat.
What if that doesn’t work?
If your dog isn’t understanding this lure technique, luring him under a chair or any suitable object that he has to lower himself to get under will often help him get the idea.
What if that doesn’t work?
It simply does not occur to some dogs to try laying down no matter how many times you waggle that treat between their legs or reposition yourself to lure him under a chair. If your dog won’t do it, try rewarding your dog for almost doing it in order to give him the idea of which direction you want the dog to go. (If your dog doesn’t flop down right away, this way is actually faster then the other methods I’m going to talk about.)
Watch your dogs elbows, if they sink even slightly while he is still sitting, click and treat. Repeat the luring, but watch his elbows and click every time they lower. When your dog is consistently lowering his elbows, bump up the criteria. Ignore very slight elbow dips and click only for the mid to deepest elbow lowers he has offered. Click those until he is no longer offering the shallow elbow-lowers and going only for elbow-lower that meet criteria. Bump up the criteria again. Keep bumping up the criteria until the dogs elbows are flat on the ground.
What if that doesn’t work?
A much slower but also effective method of training down is to simply wait for your dog to lay down and click when you see it naturally. If you are sitting in the living room and he’s with you in the evening, eventually he will lay down. Keep treats and clicker handy, and when you see him down, click and treat it. Click and treat when ever you see it, until when you play the clicker game that is what he is offering you. When he is consistently offering you down start using the cue you want him to respond to every time you see it.
Once your dog is consistently offering down even for just a split second, your dog is ready to move on to more advanced work. Congratulations on accomplishing the first leg of what will hopefully be a long journey of fun and games with your pet.