One of the reasons given for the difficulty some people have with teaching the down is that it is a subordinate posture which many dogs do not like or that it is a position from which it is difficult for the dog to defend himself. These may be partly true; however, there are also some other reasons.
Let’s first consider those approaches where the dog is physically placed in the down position. When teaching this exercise, the lead can be forced down such that the only way the tension can be released is by the dog’s going down. Other methods involve pushing down on the shoulders or pushing the dog over. In all of these methods the dog’s first response, which is the response first associated with the word “down”, is to resist the downward force by bracing himself and trying to maintain his balance as he is pushed. The dog is resisting when in fact we want him to relax. Also with these methods, we have given a tactile stimulus along with an auditory stimulus. Since the tactile stimulus affects the dog immediately and is stronger than the auditory stimulus, it will be the one he responds to.
With the methods of teaching the down where we move the dog’s feet out from under him or we cradle him to the down position, we are still interposing a tactile stimulus along with the auditory one. In addition we are asserting dominance by physically putting our body over the dog’s.
In the latter case the dog may resist the down by trying to move out from under our body thereby moving out of a position of subordinance.
In all of the above methods the dog is physically placed (forced) down. These are examples of classical conditioning where the dog has no choice but to down.
A second approach is to produce the desired result of downing by employing an avoidance response (some might consider this a survival response). This is done by using a sudden,. rapid movement of the arm, lead, or a stick towards the dog’s head or back along with the command “down.” The dog’s response is to lower his body to avoid the possible blow. At this point the dog is praised for that response. This is an example of an instinctual response, and according to Konrad Most actions based on an instinctual response are the easiest to teach because they are a natural response for the dog.
A third approach eliminates the initial resistance to the down because of a tactile stimulus, employs a natural movement of the dog as in the second approach, but does not employ an avoidance response.
A dog’s perception of motion is about ten times better than ours, and we employ this in teaching the down. With the dog sitting, the left hand is on the dog’s shoulders simply for control. The right hand is held 6 to 10 inches over the dog’s head and brought down rapidly to a point 6 to 12 inches in front of his feet as we give the command “down.” The objective is to get the dog’s attention on the hand; in some cases a toy, keys, or food can be used to maintain this attention. This brings the dog’s attention and whole action down. Those movements that the dog initiates that may lead to the down are reinforced. Our experience has been that 80% of our students have their dogs downing the first night of class using this approach and without having to place the dog in the down position.
©1981 W.H. Morrison, III