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A Problem Like ‘Down’!

dog training lie down
There are many ways to teach lie down and training should be matched to the individual dog to gain maximum results © Can Stock Photo / photographyMK

In a training class, I always find that a significant number of dogs (and their guardians, of course) have some trouble when it comes to learning/teaching how to lie down on cue.

Why Teach Lie Down Anyway?

If we can ask our dogs to lie down on cue, it can be really useful in terms of helping them relax and settle. Obviously, it’s great to have our dogs stay in one place and not leap all over the place or all over the furniture or our house guests, but for dogs who struggle to stay calm and maintain composure in a variety of contexts, teaching a long and settled down can really aid in lowering arousal.

We can extend this into location or boundary training too. Eventually we will have a dog who will settle and calm, no matter the context or scenario or distraction.

How Do We Train ‘Down?’

There are many ways to teach lie down. There’s not one specific route. Rather, it should be matched to the individual dog; learning has to be shaped for the dog you’re working with in order to gain maximum results, so be flexible.

A standard route might entail a basic lure and reward protocol:

  • Start with the dog sitting.
  • Take something you’re using as a reward that works well for the dog, such as a treat or toy, and let the dog sniff it and engage with it.
  • Move the treat from the dogs nose and slowly down towards her front feet and then again slowly towards you, drawing a kind of ‘L’ shape as you do so.
  • As your dog begins to follow the direction of your hand and is lured into a lie down, begin to say ‘down’ in a calm, happy voice.
  • The moment your dog is flat on the floor, reward quickly with your chosen reinforcement.

But it doesn’t work! Yes, in class, we get some dogs working well and some dogs struggling. As I said, there are lots of ways to help our dogs achieve the end result, just as there are also reasons why a dog might not immediately adopt the posture we want.

But why?

As with all training, we’ve got to be very clear. If we don’t give clear instructions, how can our dogs learn anything new?

Too many distractions? Usually in a training class, of course, this is a big factor – especially for puppies. Cut back on distractions and the dog will be able to better focus on the task in hand. We need to be sure that the environment is made for learning. This means it is quiet and removed from other dogs, with no other toys, movement, things to grab, or people passing by.

training dog lie down
Training dogs to lie down can help them to relax and settle as well as aid in lowering arousal. © Can Stock Photo / ESIGHT

Modify the Environment

Comfort: For some dogs, lying down is not particularly comfortable on hard surfaces. Think about those dogs with bony elbows, thin skin and fur. Ouch! Greyhounds, whippets, and lurchers are prime candidates here! Get some soft blankets, mats or fleece and try again.

Is lying comfortable for the dog? How does the dog normally lie down? For some dogs, lying with front paws out and back paws folded underneath isn’t natural. Is your dog one who lies totally flat, on her side, upside down or in a ‘frog’ position? If so, it’s perhaps a little uncomfortable to fold those legs right underneath, even more so if the dog has joint issues or chronic pain. I sometimes find slightly more ‘upright’ jointed breeds have more issues.

Too Busy: Is your dog ‘busy?’ If you’ve got a very active dog, well, these dogs are sometimes just too busy to be lying down! Things will take a little extra time, so be patient. (I’m thinking terriers here!)

Blocking: When our dogs are young, we are often teaching so many things at once it can be quite confusing for them. Sometimes old learning blocks the uptake of new learning, e.g. learning ‘sit’ interferes with learning ‘down.’

There are lots of reasons why a lie down might not be instant, but these are just a few common ones.

What else can we do?

We can implement changes in the immediate environment as already suggested above and we can ensure we are patient. But we can also look at our technique.

Shaping the Behavior

If we continue with the method outlined above and it doesn’t work, our dogs constantly fail and that is not good for anyone. So let’s try something else.

Shaping is a great way to help our dogs try harder to get the results we want.

In this case, we would take a handful of treats and reward approximations towards the end result, i.e. for the dog to lie down. Maybe we would start by rewarding a lowered head a few times, then a paw forward, then a crouch down, then a body lowered, then finally a ‘flat on the ground’ dog.

All of this will take time and we would always start wherever the last session ended so our dog continues to try harder to gain our reward. Shaping can produce a really quick result if conducted correctly, so do ask advice from a skilled and qualified trainer or behavior professional if you need extra help.

Use Your Corners: Gently backing your dog into a corner can sometimes help those that tend to tip up at the rear end! Use your environment to help. Combine this with shaping for a really good result.

Use Yourself: Try luring your dog under a crooked leg or arm (if your dog is tiny), or under a table. Again, use what is available around you. This helps your dog adopt the lie down naturally and then you can quickly add in your cue at the right time.

If you’re lucky, your dog will connect with ‘lie down’ straight away and that’s great, well done! But don’t worry if that’s not the case. The key is to re-evaluate, see what’s going wrong and understand things may take a little more time. Consider all the factors above and work them all into a new plan. I bet in time you’ll have success!

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