Since dogs will spend approximately 98% of their entire lives in a “down” position (I read that somewhere), it should not be difficult to get the dog to do a proper down. Herding dogs almost never go into a sit first when “working.” Hounds just plop down even when running. They see no point in wasting energy by going into a sit first! I am meeting more trainers who have eliminated the “sit” when teaching the “down.” I have not taught the “down” from the “sit” position for at least ten years and found that dogs are much quicker in accepting the down position as a result.
In years past, puppies and dogs were taught to do the down from a sit position with their front legs pulled out so the dog ended up in a down position, but no more! This method had many dogs flailing their legs and generally resisting the down position. Handlers often were falling over the back of their dogs and/or finding themselves sprawled on the floor with their faces directly in the face of a frightened dog. Some found themselves actually under the dog! It was not a surprise that instructors were ending up with a large class drop-out rate.
Many students seemed to have a hard time making the adjustment from telling the dog to “sit ‘n down” to simply telling the dog what response they wanted from him, such as a “down.” The dog, after learning “sit ‘n down”, will sit first when given the “down” command if “sit” was the method used to teach a “down.” This is conditioning and if the dog is young, and this method is repeated often enough, the dog will have what is called “muscle memory.” If the dog sits first, and with continued motion goes into a down position, this may be just fine for most people and in competition obedience it is acceptable. However, there is a time delay especially for a “down in motion.”
How can handlers get their dog to do a “down” without their dog giving them the “doggie finger?” There are variations and alternatives but the following is the #1 method that I use.
While walking along with the dog on one side, and without a fanfare, plant a treat almost on the dog’s nose. The hand next to the dog would gently rest just behind the shoulders, not on the back, while the other hand brings the treat slowly down the chest and between the front paws. This action would cause the dog to “fold” in order to reach the treat while the hand on the shoulders encourages him not to back up. While walking, the handler comes to a slow stop, slightly bends his knees while the feet are in a comfortable stride position. The handler does not go down onto his knees. The dog is going “down,” not the handler! “The leash is either held in the hand with the treat or the handler steps on the leash so the dog may not go bouncing away. I would rather have a dog take one or two steps backwards then to step forward at this stage of learning the down.
Start praising the dog as he is going “down.” By praising or using “cooing words” as he is going down, the dog will not think he is in trouble. He may just think you are weird. Most dogs will correctly perform this exercise during the first lesson that it is introduced. Do not pull the treat forward or you will be teaching an infantry-crawl and not a down. There are a number of alternatives, but for the most part this is the #1 method I chose to use. As soon as the dog is “down,” simultaneously give the treat and say “down” followed with the verbal release command such as “Okay” and body rubbing. Eventually the handler may simply say “down” while in an upright position. Save the excited voice and body rubbing until after the “down” has been completed. Otherwise the dog may think he is there to get a body massage, and when the massage stops, the dog may immediately get up. An excited voice may over-stimulate a few dogs, and you will have a dog jumping up to share the excitement with you too soon. Set the dog up for success, not for failure.
In about one week the treat is eliminated. Giving a release from the down position is the award motivator or “treat” equivalent.
I do not use the dog’s name first because the dog would soon think that is part of the “command.” Example: If the dog had just dashed out the gate, one would not want to shout, “Rudolph Valentino, Down, Stay, thank you please!” Too late, the dog is gone! Since we are not playing “Simon Says,” drop the dog’s name.
“Down” is an assumed stay. For instance, if I tell the dog “down,” it would be redundant to say “Stay.” If someone tells me, “My dog knows how to ‘down’ but he does not know the command ‘stay.’” I have to assume the dog does not know “down,” as that was all he was told to do; so if he does anything else, then he obviously does not know “down.” That is why I teach the “release” command right up front. “Okay” just means “you no longer have to remain in a down position.” It does not mean go off and play. I advise students that during the “learning period” not to have the dog do a down more than two or three times in a row. The goal is for the dog to learn not to get up until released with another command. It is more important that the dog learns to remain down with distractions before the time of the down is lengthened.
Keep your training fun and motivating for both you and your dog!