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Basic Training Command: Teaching Your Dog to Lie Down

Among the vast repertoire of commands a dog can learn, the lie-down command can turn helpful in many different situations. First and foremost, the position of lying down encourages calmness in dogs; indeed, with the belly touching the floor, this position is quite on the opposite spectrum of being active on all fours, ready to sprint. Yet, in many cases, dogs will lie down keeping all their four legs tucked into what looks like a “sphinx position” so they’re ready for what you’ll be asking next.

Why teach the down command? For starters, all dogs should be trained at least a few basic commands so they’re better under control and can become better members of today’s society. The down command can come in handy when you want your dog to engage in an alternate behavior. For instance, if you have a dog that jumps on people, you can ask him to sit or lie down when guests arrive or if your dog gets pushy at the table and begs, you can always command him to do a down-stay until it’s his turn to eat.

Methods for Teaching the Down Command

Using a cookie-cutter approach to train dogs doesn’t always work. Each dog is a different individual and learns at a different pace. On top of that, handlers may prefer one method over another based on their experience level, overall familiarity with the method and choice of training tools. The sit command is the precursor for the down command, so they share many facets and methods to train them. The following are some popular and not-so-popular methods to train a dog to lie down on command.

  • Luring

Perhaps the most popular method for training a dog to lie down is luring. In this case, a food lure is kept between the index and thumb finger protruding just enough so the dog can see and smell the food. The dog is asked to sit and then the treat is brought from the dog’s nose down in a vertical line towards the middle of his front legs. This should encourage the dog to follow the treat downwards as he dips his front legs a bit. Afterward, the food is brought out from the middle of the legs outwards in a horizontal line towards the handler. The whole hand signal is done as if drawing an imaginary letter “L” Once the dog’s elbows touch the floor, the dog is praised and then the treat is released. Once the dog gets good at this, the handler can start gradually fading the “L” hand signal and train the dog to obey to a verbal command. After all, no handler wants to be stuck bending down to the floor each time!

Note: An issue with luring is that it can turn into bribing if the treat is not faded quickly enough. In other words, the dog may learn to only obey when he sees a treat in view. To prevent this from happening, once the dog responds well enough to the down hand signal, dog handlers must remove the treat from view and give it only after the dog lies down and is praised. The treat can be simply kept in a pocket, inside a treat bag or simply in the other hand.

  • Capturing

All dogs will eventually lie down every now and then to take a nap. Capturing is a training method where the dog is rewarded for engaging in spontaneous behaviors as they happen. Patient handlers will therefore await for a dog to eventually lie down to mark and reward the action as it unfolds. The likeliness of lying down can be increased by having the dog on a leash and the handler sitting on a chair. The dog will eventually lie down sooner than later. The moment the dog’s elbows touch the floor, the behavior is marked with an enthusiastic verbal marker such as “yes” or “good boy” or the click of a clicker and then the dog is rewarded.

  • Shaping

This method focuses on rewarding small approximations of the finished behavior. It’s basically a step-by-step systematic approach where the dog is gradually taught a command. In the case of training a dog to lie down, the dog would be initially rewarded for lowering the head, slightly dipping the front legs, performing a “bow,” then slightly dipping the rear legs and then finally bringing the rear end to the floor.

  • Physical Molding

In this case, the dog is forced into a position using physical manipulation. The dog is trained to lie down by pushing down on the dog’s shoulders until the dog lowers into a down. This method is based on negative reinforcement since the pressure on the dog’s shoulders is removed only once the dog complies and lies down. Another similar method consists of pulling the leash downwards until the dog lies down. Often, both pushing the dog and pulling on the leash are used simultaneously.

This method was mostly used by old school trainers before clicker training and other more modern methods became popular. While it may seem effective, it’s important to note that many dogs resent being handled this way. Also, pushing a dog into a down may be painful for a dog with back problems or some other orthopedic problems. Stepping or pulling downwards on the leash may cause a dog to feel trapped and panicky, causing him to fight the pressure. For these reasons, more and more trainers advocate kinder methods were the dog is a willing participant rather than an animal being forced into performing a behavior.

When Should the Command be Introduced?

The command is introduced when the dog is fluent in performing the behavior by following the hand signal. This is to avoid the dog from making a wrong association between the command and the action. For instance, if the command is given when the dog doesn’t know yet that his elbows must touch the floor and so must his bottom, he won’t learn what the command really means.

An important note about the command: many dog owners choose the word “down” to train their dog to lie down but this can get confusing at times, because the word “down” is also often used to tell the dog to jump off the couch or to stop jumping on guests. To prevent confusion, it’s not a bad idea to use a different word.

Troubleshooting Issues

Not all dogs respond to training in the same way. Some dogs may pose some challenges and may not respond to traditional training methods. This is why trainers must have some tricks up their sleeves and often must get creative. For instance, some dog with long bodies may pose some challenges. An example is the dachshund which has a very long back and may find lying down a bit more challenging compared to other breeds. In this case, capturing the behavior and using a clicker may be easier than luring.

Another common problem are dogs that are about to lie down but right when they are about to, their back end pops up. In this case, the handler will need to be discriminative and tenacious, rewarding only when the rear end goes down. Dogs that are reluctant to lie down, may be encouraged using a prompt such as a bench or a chair so they will have to lie down to try to get the treat from beneath. Finally, some small dogs or dogs with short fur may be unwilling to lie down on cold surfaces. The use of carpet or a small rug can be helpful for these sensitive fellows.

Some Helpful Tips

  • Dogs that are tired after being exercised will be more willing to lie down.
  • When a dog doesn’t seem able to focus, the level of distractions may be too high. It’s always a good idea to start in low-distraction areas and then gradual add more and more distractions.
  • Dog owners may want to train their dog to start responding to a verbal command instead of using a hand signal. In order to accomplish this, they’ll have to start by saying the command first and then using the hand signal the dog is familiar with. Repetition after repetition, the dog will respond as soon as he hears the verbal command without needing the hand signal. At this point, the hand signal can be faded and eventually removed.
  • It’s best to keep sessions short, no longer than 15 minutes at a time so to keep the dog’s interest alive. Puppies have very short attention spans so a couple of minutes may be enough. Best to have several short sessions than long, tedious ones.
  • Dog owners should always keep in mind that training should be a fun and rewarding process.
  • Ending the training session on a positive note will keep the dog looking forward to future sessions.

As seen, training a dog to lie down has many advantages. Whether dog owners want their dog to calm down or engage in an alternate behavior that is less troublesome, the down command can be used anywhere and virtually at any time. It soon becomes second nature for the dog to lie down on command and second nature for the dog owner to ask for this command when most appropriate. Learn more about dog obedience training and different training commands in our previous article.

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