Can your dog lie down and relax when you ask him to? I don’t mean does he lie down and relax of his own accord when you and he are just hanging out, but if you needed to pay at the veterinarian’s front desk, could you ask him to lie down and relax so that your hands were free to slide your card and enter your PIN? You have likely taught your dog to lie down and stay, so why is it that so few dogs I see can do this without behaving like a racehorse in the starting gate? You know what this looks like; the owner asks the dog to lie down and stay and he lies down, often on his chest with his haunches coiled underneath him ready to spring up and race off. He may even be shivering in anticipation.
The down stay is perhaps the single behaviour I could absolutely not live without. I can use a harness or head halter if I have to walk an unruly dog, so I don’t really need to teach my dogs to walk on a nice leash, and if they have a solid down stay that I can call upon from anywhere I can use that as brakes instead of a recall, but without the down stay I don’t think I could make it through my day. I use my down stay ALL the time. Let me give some examples!
We have horses. When they lived on the farm with us, I would often take Eco out to feed and water the horses. As a predator around prey species, it was easy for him to get them running when they first met him. All he had to do was rush to the gate and slip into the paddock and the horses would bolt to the other side of the paddock. This is a great way to teach a dog to chase horses because horses running away is fun for dogs. This is also a great way to teach horses to stay away from me, as I am always accompanied by a dog. But wait! Eco had a stellar down stay. We would leave the house and he would cavort around looking for a toy and when he realized we were heading to the horse paddock, he would start to race. I would call out “down” and he would drop. I would call out “stay” and he would stay, allowing me to get to the gate ahead of him. Then I would call him closer and ask him to down and stay again, and do my chores. In this way, he never learned to chase horses and the horses learned that he was safe. Eventually we were able to walk amongst our tiny herd without the horses bolting and without Eco trying to get them to run. Easy peasy!
Or consider this; when I am serving dinner to guests at the table, Friday thinks that helping would be a good idea. She is curious and likes having guests over for dinner. This past holiday season we had a dinner guest who brought her dog who ALSO likes to help serve dinner if you let him. Now we have two friendly dogs in the house, who like to play with one another and who like to follow when you move from the kitchen to the dining room. I asked both dogs to lie down and stay while I served dinner and then asked them to continue to stay while we ate. Both dogs eventually fell asleep because both dogs understand that a down stay is not going to result in an opportunity to race out of the down stay and into play right away.
So how do we achieve this? Yes, I am a very good trainer, and so is John and so is our dinner guest, but this isn’t magic. This is the result of understanding some of the mechanics of the target behaviour and then teaching those to the dog. The first thing to understand is that with young dogs we never ever teach them that the down stay is going to result in a big explosive release. I see this over and over again, especially in dogs who are competing in agility and obedience. The handler asks for a down and stay and then at the end, they release the dog and the dog bounces up and the handler throws a party. It doesn’t take long for that dog to start to anticipate that the return of the handler is going to result in a great big hurrah and bounce, and his body needs to get ready to do that. Internally, this means that the dog learns to raise his heart rate and tense his muscles when he thinks that he is going to get up. If instead we teach the dog that he is always going to do something calm and quiet after the down stay, the dog never learns to tense up and get his heart going when the down stay is over. My goal is to teach all my dogs, and especially my young dogs to come out of their down stay calmly and quietly and in a relaxed manner.
The next aspect to understand is that when we teach the down stay, we should not teach the down stay incrementally. Teaching the dog that if they do a one second down stay they will be released sets them up to be really excited about the release at the two second mark. When I was learning to train dogs, this was how we did it. We mastered one second and moved on to two seconds. Then three, five, 7, 10, 15 and so on. By the time we had reached the pinnacle of the three minute down stay that we needed for the novice obedience test we usually had a classroom full of lunatic dogs all waiting like horses in the starting gate to leap up and race forward and play. When I think about training this way, compared to how I approach it now, I smile in recollection of the antics that often ensued and I cringe in remembrance of all the machinations we engaged in to enforce that three minute down stay. The perception was that asking the dog to lie down and stay for three minutes was incredibly difficult!
Consider the physical demands of this behaviour. I want the dog to lie down, and chill out. Relax. Not chew a bone, just wait patiently. Perhaps the world we live in today discourages us from seeing this as the easiest thing in the world to do; waiting rooms have television sets and magazines to keep us amused. And heaven forbid that we might have to wait without amusement for 20 seconds while in line at the store; there are screens and visual activities to keep us occupied there too. At home, how many of us have a television or the radio turned on from the moment we wake till the instant we drop off to sleep? How many of us have something happening in the room while we sleep? And what do we do about these distractions and busy makers? We pay to attend yoga classes or get a massage! This past year, I spent two weeks out in the bush, alone. When I came back, I visited the home a good friend who has two active kids. The day after I came out of the bush was Canada day, and she had invited family over. The house was super busy, so I decamped to the front porch to sit. One of the kids came out eventually and asked what I was doing. “Sitting” I replied. “Sitting and doing what?” she asked. “Just sitting.” Over the months since I was in the bush, I have lost that simple act of sitting and just being, but it is there in me, ready to reactivate when I choose to take the time and slow down a bit.
Our dogs are generally much better at just sitting than we are. As I write, Friday is lying on the floor in front of our wood stove. Her head is up, and she sometimes orients on me or John, or on something she hears, but generally, she is just…sitting. Incidentally, sitting doesn’t necessarily mean being in the sitting position, it means being relaxed and content with your thoughts. I have just finished my deer hunt for the year, when I go out in the bush for days on end and sit and wait for the deer to come in. This year the deer didn’t come, but I got to see many, many wild animals, just sitting. A chipmunk came and sat on my boot for about ten minutes. Just sitting and watching the world. When I shifted he was able to just move off, but while I was still, he was still too. I saw rabbits doing this and one spectacular afternoon a young bald eagle. Just sitting is a very natural activity that most mammals engage in for a good chunk of their day. Asking a dog to lie down and stay for three minutes should not be that difficult.
So what changed for my dogs? Why can they do the three minute down stay without distress now, when so many dogs struggle with this? Very simply because I START with a one hour down stay. When an 8 week old pup comes into my home, he learns sit, down and the cued take it in the first week. We work on meeting new people and other dogs, and handling and his name, but we don’t work on a lot else. Then at between 9 and 10 weeks, my puppies do their very first one hour down stay. Here is what it looks like.
We get up in the morning and I take the puppy outside to toilet. Then we come into the kitchen and I get out the pup’s breakfast and pour myself a cup of coffee. Then I sit down on the floor and ask the pup to lie down. As long as the puppy stays lying down, I feed him his breakfast one kibble at a time. If you feed a homemade diet, you would just feed a little bit of food at a time; with the rule being very, very simple. If you are lying down, I will hand you food. If you are standing up or sitting, you get nothing. I don’t keep reminding the puppy; I just wait. The first time we may not work for a whole 60 minutes; I have to judge things on if the pup needs to toilet again, but usually we work for between 45 and 60 minutes. Puppy kibble is great for this because it is smaller so there are more bites which makes for more training. After three or four days of this, my pups are pretty clear that lying down pays BIG, so they lie down a lot more often.
After a few weeks of this, I usually add a tether; I teach all my adolescent and adult dogs the same behaviour, but I use a tether for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that an adult dog might choose to get up and leave and I want to limit his choices. The second reason is that most dogs are going to have to be tethered at some point in their lives and I want to make sure that they can do this while relaxed.
Once the dog understands that lying down is going to keep me delivering treats, I start to move around; one step feed, two steps, feed and so on, until I can move out of sight. Then I add more distractions; dropping napkin or tea towel for instance. Then I make it more difficult; I want the dogs to look at distractions as a clue that they should settle in and relax for the duration, because you never know what Sue will present. What you do know is that if you get up, the floor show will stop and so will the treats.
Over the course of my pup’s first year, they will do a daily down stay until I can do anything and they will remain in place. Of course, along the way, I thin out the reinforcement, and with an adult dog who is very experienced, I will sometimes use activity as the reward for the down stay but ONLY if the dog is relaxed. If the dog is at all tense or distressed, I make the game easier and feed more often but don’t stop training the behaviour.
The down stay is probably the most important activity that I have to teach my young dogs, and it is the most important behaviour I use day to day with my dogs. Doing housework? The dogs are in a down stay! Watching a movie? Down stay! Dinner guests? Down stay. Bringing in the groceries? Down stay. Planting flowers in the garden? Down stay. Grooming the horses? Down stay. Playing frisbee? You got it! Down stay! I use the down stay everywhere, every day. And for my dogs it is the clue that they should settle in and relax because it is likely going to go on for at least twenty minutes. When I only need a short down stay, they are relaxed because they don’t start out with the idea that they are going to get up at any moment and race around. And when I do release my dogs from the down stay with nothing planned to do next, most of the time my dogs will take a big stretch as they would when waking form a nap and then they walk off. Racing is for racehorses. Down stay is for just sitting!