Hear now the tale of two labs!
The first pup greets his owner at the door by using his body as a crash barrier, narrowly avoiding bestowing a few cracked ribs on his unfortunate master. The second runs to his owner with the same exuberance, but with a simple hand signal lays down quietly to receive his greeting.
The first lab sees a squirrel and follows it into oncoming traffic, just missing a first-class ticket to the rainbow bridge. The second lab also chases the squirrel, but his owner yells “Down!” when he sees the danger. He drops before he reaches the road and quietly waits for his owner to retrieve him.
The first lab sniffs too close to a porcupine and decides to see what it tastes like – getting a face full of quills. The second dog also shows interest in the porcupine, but again hits the deck with a word from his owner.
Now, which lab would you like to own?
Obviously, the second pup will save you money in medical bills, and possibly psychiatric bills, by knowing a simple command.
Training your Labrador to lay down on command takes time and patience. However, it’s one of the most important commands you can teach them. It allows you to push the pause button on any action you feel will not turn out well. It could even save their life!
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Why Teach Your Dog to Down?
If the above introduction wasn’t enough to convince you that teaching your dog the down command is important, here are a few more reasons you should consider it.
- A solid down command provides you with ultimate control. It’s one of the best ways to stop your pup from moving toward a dangerous situation, such as out into the street, into a conflict with another animal or if they are about to jump on an elderly person or child.
- It tends to help more impulsive dogs stick to one spot. While a sit can also do this, it takes a bit more effort to get up from a down position than a sit. A down just works better to keep a dog from moving.
- Your dog can hold the down position for a long time. After all, it’s relaxing to lie down! Just give him a hammock and a fruity drink and he will wait for you. If you need your dog to hold a stay for a while, down is the command to use.
- A down can help calm an overly excited dog. If your lab gets a little too bouncy around children, simply ask him for a down. It can also help kids feel less intimidated when your dog is in the down position.
- It’s mentally stimulating. A proper down asks the dog to wait for a release word before they are allowed up. Your dog will focus on you until you tell them otherwise. This is a great mental exercise.
- When your lab is in a moving car or some other unstable surface where balance is an issue, a down can help ensure their safety.
Remember a dog in a down can’t get into trouble!
Helpful Tips Before You Start Teaching The Down Command
- Pick a quiet place that is familiar to the dog. As with any training, dogs learn best when they’re able to focus on you without other distractions. Begin training the dog in your home or backyard, away from new sights and smells.
- Keep the right tone in your voice. Sound friendly, but also calm, assertive and authoritative. Training should be fun! Keep your voice soft. Dogs have excellent, although sometimes selective, hearing.
- Train the down after exercise. Since the down requires the dog to relax, it’s best to burn off some energy first. You will have much faster success if you do this.
- Train the down before feeding. You also want your dog hungry so he is motivated to work for the treats.
- Pick a release word. Ideally, the end result of teaching the down means your pup can’t get up until you give permission. They are to stay stuck with their tummies to the floor until they hear differently from you. Some common release phrases are “free,” “up now,” “done,” or “o.k.” It doesn’t matter which phrase you pick. Just stay consistent.
- Define down in your head. The down command is not “go lie down,” “go to your crate,” or “go to bed.” Those are terms that require the dog to lie down, but not remain in an active down awaiting a release word from you. Make sure that you don’t confuse the dog with these similar commands.
- Strive to train in a positive way for short sessions. You always want to leave your pup wanting more. You don’t want to train them on a command until they get bored or lose interest. They should think that training is the highlight of their day! Keep the sessions short initially – no more than 5 to 10 minutes.
- Make sure you only reward when you have a true down. If the dog’s elbows aren’t touching the floor or their back-end pops up, keep at it until they are giving you an honest down.
- Ensure the floor works to your favor. Some dogs don’t like to lie down on a cold floor. Teach your dog the down command on a carpet or rug so they won’t feel uncomfortable with their bare tummy touching a cold surface.
How to Teach Your Labrador the Down Command
Training the down is fairly straightforward. After all, dogs already know how to lie down as part of their natural behavior. No one had to teach them how to do this. The purpose of training is to teach them to do this on your command.
Training has about as many different approaches as there are combinations of dog and owner personalities.
However, there are two very mainstream approaches to teaching the down command that we will examine in this article.
How to Teach the Down Command Using Luring
Luring is simply a technique that uses your dog’s nose to follow a treat until they are in the down position. To teach your dog to down with this technique, have a pocket full of treats.
- Get your dog’s attention and position him in front of you, facing you. Hold a treat firmly in your closed hand so that your dog can smell it but can’t reach it. You should have your lab’s full attention at this point. No self-respecting lab ever turned down food!
- Once your lab’s nose is glued to your hand, bring your hand directly down to the ground. Your puppy’s head will follow your hand down.
- Slowly pull your hand away from your puppy along the floor. The entire hand movement should resemble an “L.” Your hand drops straight down and then away from the dog. Try not to do a diagonal movement. When done correctly, most dogs will drop to a down position at this point to follow the treat.
- If your pup doesn’t down right away, you can also ask for a sit first so their back end is already on the floor.
- If the sit approach doesn’t work, be patient. Some pups may stand and paw at your hand for a bit. Eventually, most dogs will lay down in an attempt to get at the treat from a different angle.
- If nothing else works, you can also sit down next to your pup and make a tent with your knees. Then, lure the dog under your knees to get the treat. In most cases, your dog will lie down to get into this small space.
- Say the word “down” right when your puppy begins to drop.
- As soon as your lab is all the way down, with their elbows touching the ground, open your hand to give them the treat and say “Good down!”
- Do this for several sessions across multiple days until your pup is very confident and is downing every time you ask for it.
Moving to Hand Signals
Since most people don’t want to bend to the floor every time they ask for a down, you can then progress to hand signals and verbal commands to give your knees and back a break!
- This time, when you ask for a down, use the same hand signal as before, but don’t have a treat in your hand. When the dog downs, praise and reward with the other hand while saying, “Good down!”
- Progressing slowly, use the same hand motion a bit higher off the ground with each training session. You may only be able to move up a few inches each time.
- If your dog gets confused, you’re moving too quickly. Back up to where they were reliably giving you the correct response.
- Eventually, progress to using the universal hand signal for down. Hold your arm out horizontally with your palm facing down, and then drop your arm from a horizontal position towards the ground.
How to Train the Down Command Using Capturing
In dog training, capturing works exactly like it sounds. Think of it like taking a picture, except instead of clicking your camera you are using a capture word or a clicker. In capturing, you simply wait for the dog to offer the behavior naturally, then click to mark that behavior and treat.
The dog learns that the sound of the clicker or your catch phrase such as “Yes!” means the behavior they are actively doing when they hear it is what you want.
Since most people can’t get their treat into their dog’s mouth at the exact moment they are giving them the correct behavior, giving them a word or clicker sound through event capturing lets them know what behavior you are rewarding.
Capturing can work on many different behaviors. For this article, we will focus only on how to utilize it to teach your lab the down command.
To teach your dog the down command with capturing, follow these steps:
- Get that puppy tired! Just like you after you’ve hit the gym, a dog is much more inclined to want to rest after a good workout. Hang out with your pup in a quiet room free from distractions, toys or treats. Now, simply wait for them to lie down on their own.
- Once your dog lies down, you can either use a clicker or say a word like “Yes!” to signal that this behavior is going to bring them good things. Throw them a treat and praise them.
- To get to the treat, your dog will probably stand up again. This sets them up for the next down. Ignore them until they lay down again on their own. Then, either click or use your marker word as soon as you see their elbows touch terra firma.
- Your dog may try to offer other behaviors to get a treat. Ignore all behaviors until they lie down again. At this point, praise and treat. Let them do five to ten downs per session.
- Once your dog is comfortable with this routine, start adding the word “Down” every time your dog begins to offer this behavior. In no time, you will be able to say the command and your dog will down just on the verbal cue.
Why You Should Never Force a Down
Imagine if a big giant pushed on your shoulders and forced you to lie down. If this giant didn’t speak your language, so you could understand what was happening, it would be pretty scary to be driven into the ground. Your natural impulse would be to resist and fight.
The same thing happens with your dog. Putting the dog into a down position is a very domineering act in the canine mind. If not done correctly, it erodes trust.
Since our goal is to create a dog that happily listens to the down command, enjoys training and wants to please the owner, forcing the down is not productive. If you have a sensitive dog, you will even see their entire attitude toward training change from positive to negative when you force a down.
While the positive forms of training may take a bit more patience, your lab will come out with a much happier attitude about the down command and a more bonded relationship with you. If you follow the two methods above, your dog will learn how to down on command while never losing their love of training.
Once your lab has mastered the down, it’s time to add the second part of the command. As I mentioned previously, the entire down command means, “Lie down until I tell you can get up.”
To help your pup grasp the importance of waiting, we need to teach them a release word.
Once you see them start to get up, or when you throw the food for them to get up and go get it, begin to use a release word every time and then praise them. Again, you can use words like “free,” “up,” or “o.k.” Just keep the word consistent.
Once you’ve done a few training sessions where you’ve coincided your release word with your dog getting up, it’s time to ask for them to stay down after they decide it’s time to get up.
The goal of training is not for them to get up when they feel like it. So, we give them the opportunity to make this mistake and then correct it.
When your dog, who is already in the down position, tries to get up before you’ve released them, put them back into the down position with your voice command and hand signal.
At this point, they should know what this means, and should happily go into the down again. Then, give them the release word right after they go back into the down and praise.
This cements in your lab’s mind that they need to wait for you before they get up. It may take a bit of practice, but eventually they should understand.
If they don’t get up when they hear the release word, they can easily be lured up with a treat. Remember to say your release word in an excited, happy voice. In contrast, when you give the down command, remain friendly, but have a calmer tone to your voice.
Your next step is to have them wait for a few seconds longer between the down command and a release word. Continue to build up time in between the two commands. Remember, it’s fine to shorten the time again if your pup seems to have trouble with the duration.
You can also keep them guessing as to how long they will be in a down. Ask for a few downs for shorter periods and a few more for longer periods in random order to make it fun.
Where’s My Treat? – Phasing out Food Rewards
Eventually, you will need to phase out food rewards. After all, once your dog understands what you want, you can ask for them to give you a few more behaviors before they are rewarded with treats. This will save you money on treats and help keep their waistline trim.
Dogs will also often work for your praise or a toy. Find out what motivates your pup, and offer a variety of benefits to following your commands.
You can still throw treats into the mix; just don’t be predictable. Keep them guessing. It takes advantage of the gambling effect.
You can ask for a series of behaviors before you reward with a treat, praise or a toy. For example, if your dog already knows how to sit, put them in a down, then ask for a sit, and then put them back into a down before releasing them for a treat.
Getting a Rock-Steady Down
Once your dog learns what “down” means, it’s time to make sure you can get the same compliance no matter the distractions, distance or duration your dog is asked to perform it – called proofing. You also want your dog to listen to you no matter what environment you experience – called generalization.
Remember, once you add these things into the mix, your dog will often regress due to the changes. You may have to backtrack into more rudimentary training until they are again performing at their previous level.
The general rule is that you can only add one thing at a time… either distance, duration, distractions or new locations as explained fully in this article on proofing.
Don’t try to move too quickly when adding these new obstacles or you will confuse your pup.
Training the down command can take commitment, time and patience. I can’t think of any other training endeavor, other than a solid recall, that will be more beneficial to ensure your pup is both safe and polite around other people.
In addition, teaching the down is one of the best ways to build rapport with your lab.
Also, a lab that understands the down is more easily controlled and a better representation of a good canine citizen.
Finally, you also have a tool to keep them safe when they are racing into unsafe situations where their normal exuberance for life will get them into trouble.
Overall, people love a dog that is controlled and calm. Labs aren’t the smallest of dogs, so it’s even more critical for them to understand how to control themselves. The down command is one of the best tools to accomplish this perfect picture of the loyal lab resting at your feet.
Ironically, one of the best ways to elevate your dog in the eyes of others is to teach them to get down.
Before starting her full-time writing business, Sarah worked with a top pet food company as a consultant to veterinarians conducting weekly classes on canine and feline nutrition for the doctors and staff.
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