Teaching a Dog To Stay Down–The Down-stay Command

The explanatory notes for obedience classes where it is called the ‘Down/Stay’ say simply that: This test should be carried out exactly as for the Sit, except that dogs will be left in the Down position throughout the test.

In Working Trials the Down exercise is the same for all stakes — ten minutes, handler out of sight. The Notes for Guidance are more explicit:

Down so minutes Handler out of Sight

The dog must remain in the lying down position for the full period specified, the handler being out of sight until ordered to return by the Judge. The dog should not rise from the ‘Down’ position until the Judge declares the exercise complete. The Judge may cause a dog to be tested by sending Stewards to walk around it during the exercise. Any dog which leaves the vicinity of the line, group or place in which placed before the return of the handler(s) shall lose all marks unless fighting by other dogs or some exceptional occurrence is considered by the Judge to demand special treatment. Minor movements of the dog shall be penalked by the Judge at his discretion, who will take into account the stage in the exercise at which the infringement took place.

Whether you are training your dog for your own pleasure and satisfaction or for competition work, one of the most important of all exercises is undoubtedly the Down. It is worth noting that this is the one and only exercise which is taught to the average sheepdog before it is allowed to work sheep.

In Obedience Classes and Working Trial schedules, more points are awarded for this exercise than for almost any other, and the chances of being placed with a dog that is not steady on the Down are very slender indeed. It seems surprising, therefore, that there are so many failures, and I should say that during the course of a year more points must be lost on this exercise than in all others put together. This is due partly to temperament in the dog, but I think just as much to the tendency of so many trainers to try to run before they can walk.

No great skill is required in teaching a dog to lie down. It is simply a matter of forcing him to the ground — and making sure that he stays there. This can be done in several ways. With the lead running under the instep of the left foot pull up with the right hand at the same time pushing the dog down with the left one. Once you have him down keep your left foot close enough to his collar to prevent him getting up. With a more responsive dog you can grip the collar under the chin with the right hand and jerk the dog down as you give the command. If necessary push down simultaneously with the left hand on the shoulders.

The important point is to get him to associate this lying down with the command ‘Down’, ‘Flat’, or whatever you use, or with a hand signal. As you push him down give the command in a harsh tone. The majority of dogs, if spoken to harshly, will naturally creep or lie right down. Full use should always be made of any natural tendency such as this. Do not worry about him being cowed. He will soon get over that once he knows exactly what you want him to do.

The other important point is to praise him whenever he stays down. Some trainers disagree on this, maintaining that to praise a dog in this exercise will make him get up. That is quite true in the initial stages, but it can be overcome by balancing the correction and reward. You should then have a happy dog which stays down to please you, instead of a miserable one which stays down because he is afraid to get up.

So long as he struggles keep telling him harshly to ‘Down’ and force him to do so — gently if he is a sensitive dog. But, if he decides to be rough with you, you will have to be rough with him. Immediately he relaxes for a second, however, change your tone of voice and tactics completely and praise him well, yet quietly. If you excite him too much he probably will get up.

Do not give him the chance to start struggling again. Let him get up and start once more at the beginning. Very soon (the time varies considerably from dog to dog) he should go down on command, perhaps assisted by a slight push, and should stay down beside you.

From there, proceed exactly as with the Sit, until you can walk all round him, step over him, run away, run past him, jump over him and make all sorts of peculiar noises. What you must try to do is to make the dog understand gradually that, no matter what happens, he must not get up until you tell him to do so. If he should get up, go back to him quickly and quietly, without frightening him, but at the same time letting him know that you are very, very angry, and put him down firmly in exactly the spot he was on. This is very important, and it is worth making a mental note of a stone, twig or tuft of grass beside the place where he is lying. Do not put something down beside him or he may learn to stay beside an object belonging to you, and may not stay without it.

Teach the dog to stay down while you go out of sight in the same way as you have taught him to stay sitting. It is a good idea to have some sort of ‘hide’ from which you can see the dog without him seeing you. If, for instance, you watch him through a hole in a fence you can scold him as and when he moves. If he is the sort that thought you couldn’t see him this will give him quite a surprise.

Don’t teach him to go down from the Sit or give a lesson on the Down immediately after one on the Sit. Either of these practices tends to make a dog go down on the Sit, a very difficult fault to eradicate. Any similar exercises, likely to be confusing to the dog, should be taught entirely separately. For example, give a lesson on the Down, then some heel work, then the Sit. Or give a lesson on the Down in the morning and the Sit in the afternoon.

Far too many people train their dogs with one object in view — winning in competitions. They swot up all the exercises in the particular test and go through them in the same order day after day until the dog does them automatically in the same way as a performing dog goes through a routine. A clever dog very soon learns which exercise follows which, and will, if allowed, carry on without any command at all. That is one reason for so many dogs going down on the Sit. All they are doing is what they have been taught to do by constant repetition. That they do it a bit ahead of schedule shows intelligence and common sense.

Which brings me to the reason why many dogs fail in the Down — the tendency to teach the Sits and Downs for competitions with one eye on the dog and the other on a watch. If people would forget about competitions and teach their dogs obedience they would get on a lot better. In particular, if they would teach them to go down and stay down at any time, in any place and under all sorts of distractions, they would find that they would stay in the ring.

Instead, as soon as the dog will stay five minutes out of sight at home or at classes, they enter him in Class A, apparently overlooking the fact that in competitions one cannot correct a dog and put him back on the spot in the way I have already described. If the dog, in his first competition, stays four minutes and fifty-nine seconds, then gets up and goes out of the ring, he may have started a habit which could ruin all his future chances of winning. Next time he will perhaps stay four minutes then three, until eventually he gets up and follows his handler out of the ring — simply because he has not been and cannot be corrected for it. It is foolish to enter a dog in Class A until he will stay down at least fifteen minutes out of sight at home and in as many strange places as you can possibly find. Any well-trained working dog will stay in the same place for an hour without getting up. Theoretically, a dog, having been told to ‘Down’, should stay there until he is told to get up, whether that be in half a minute, half an hour, or at the end of next week.

Always remember that if you have just started a lesson by ordering your dog to ‘Down’ and the telephone rings, do not leave him and forget about him. He should stay there until you return, but he may not, so don’t take the risk. Slip the lead on again and take him with you, making him lie down beside you where you can keep an eye on him. In any case, it is always a good idea for the dog to be thoroughly accustomed to lying beside you for quite long periods before you ask him to stay while you move away. This need not take the form of a set exercise. If, when you are having a meal, reading a book or watching television you put a lead on the dog, make him lie down close to your foot on the lead: be will have no option but to stay there. From half an hour to an hour of this at irregular intervals and in a variety of places will do far more to steady a restless, fidgety dog than taking him to classes once a week.

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