I remember one incident when, after I had told the class to down their dogs, a fellow got into a tremendous wrestling match with his Dobe which concluded with the dog standing triumphantly over the prone handler. After two more tries produced the same result, I asked the handler whether this was the dog’s usual response. Apparently it was and the only reason the handler had enrolled in the class, was to teach this exercise to the dog. So I took the dog and, not being very athletic or having the inclination to get into a wrestling match with a strange dog, I showed the dog a biscuit. The response was perfect – with a little downward pressure on the collar, the dog followed that biscuit right to the floor and subsequently learned to respond to the command without any further aids.
At what point the instructor should intercede in a situation like this can be a difficult judgment. His job is to teach the handler how to do it and not necessarily show the handler that he, the instructor, can do it. I have seen many instances in which the handlers were unable to do an exercise successfully during the session in which it was taught, but had managed to teach it to the dog by the time the next class came around. It is a matter of conjecture whether intervention by the instructor always materially furthers the handler’s efforts. In some instances it is better to let the handler practice on his home ground without the distractions attendant in a class situation. The down is a good example and is an exercise which can very easily become a problem if the instructor is not alert to potential difficulties such as voice, circumstances, and approach. Taught correctly it should be an exercise like any other and one which the dog performs with the same degree of willingness and joy that we expect from him in other areas.
From an instructor’s point of view, there are several ways in which to facilitate the teaching of this exercise. It helps considerably if the dogs are relaxed. For this reason, many instructors do not teach this exercise until the third or fourth session of a basic course. By that time, the dogs have gotten used to each other and usually respond more readily than they might during the first session.
If the dog is relaxed, he can be taught to go down with a minimum amount of effort. This aspect is of particular importance when working with one of the toy breeds who do much better on a table when learning this exercise; it also saves the handler’s back. Naturally, some dogs will take longer to relax than others and the instructor must take this into consideration. Similarly, a dog who is insecure might be reluctant to lie down and thereby assume his most vulnerable position, especially if his insecurity stems from the presence of other dogs. After all, one of them might jump him.
The way in which the exercise is approached is also important. Of all the different approaches that exist, the one I like best is the no-approach approach, because it is simple, quick and effective, and requires very little explaining. It goes like this: the instructor asks the handlers in the class to show him how they get their dogs into the down position. Since most handlers have worked on this exercise with their dogs at home long before they ever came to class, nine out of ten have no difficulty with it and only need a few pointers on how to get a quick response to the command. There is always that one, however, who needs help.
Judging by the amount of time most dogs spend in the down position, we must assume that it is their favorite. Somehow, however, when it comes to teaching them to down, particularly in a class situation, they often act as though they absolutely resent it. The reasons for this are manifold, but the foremost probably relates to how the dog has been introduced to the command and/or exercise. All too often the impression is left on the dog that down is a punishment. Many handlers inadvertently create this impression because they have difficulty in controlling their voice when giving the down command. While they can call the dog to come in the most angelic and inviting tones, the down command, no matter how hard they try, comes out like a threat. Some handlers are also convinced that only a threatening or harsh tone of voice will get the dog to respond. If the dog was taught in a quiet, but firm manner, he will respond to commands given that way and harsh or loud commands are not only unnecessary (as well as portraying a poor image of the sport) but may actually be counterproductive. I happened to observe an example of this at a recent trial. Overt practicing at ringside is not permitted; but this particular handler apparently had to reassure himself that his dog indeed knew the drop on recall. So he very surreptitiously lined himself and his dog up and practiced the exercise in a whisper – the dog did it perfectly. The pressure of competition, however, must have been too much – in the ring he bellowed the command at the dog so loudly that he literally frightened the dog out of his wits, causing the dog to fail.
©1974 J. J. Volhard