Keep Calm and Lie Down

“Lie down” is often the very first behavior I teach a new foster dog, as I find that it’s one of the simplest behaviors to capture and one of the most useful household manners for a dog to know. I’m always amazed at how much trouble people go to in order to teach their dog this simple behavior. There are as many methods for teaching “lie down” as there are trainers to teach it.

Envy participated in our B.E.S.T. training program for shelter dogs. She quickly learned that lying down earned her treats and massages!

If you’re working harder than your dog is to teach him something new, you’re doing something wrong. I prefer lazy training, which is why I capture downs. Here’s the thing: every dog has to lie down eventually. It may take a long time if a dog is anxious or excited in a new environment, but they do eventually need to rest or sleep. I just wait for the dog to lie down on his own, then reward him for doing so.

Whether you use a clicker to mark the dog’s behavior or not is a personal choice. I prefer to use the clicker, as this allows me to more accurately pinpoint the moment that the dog earned a reward, and thus speeds up the training process. Unless a dog is likely to be sound-sensitive, I usually don’t “load” the clicker before I start training, but rather let the dog make the association between his behavior, the click, and the treat by himself. Dogs are smart, and they figure out that the funny noise predicts good stuff quite quickly in the course of training. And like I already mentioned, I’m a pretty lazy trainer, and loading the clicker would just add an extra, unnecessary step to the process.

Dogs do what works. Rewarding the dog usually causes him to get up in the hope of more treats. That’s fine. I just ignore him, and when he lies down again I once again reward. Over time, he learns that lying down causes me to produce cookies.

At some point in the training process, usually after the first 10-20 rewards, there’s a lightbulb moment. This moment is one that most trainers live for, and it never fails to give me goosebumps. Suddenly, the dog realizes that his behavior is controlling my behavior. Lying down turns me into a human Pez dispenser, making delicious treats rain down like manna from heaven.

This moment of realization is incredibly powerful, especially for dogs who have never before had a relationship based on communication with a person. Dogs dig this, and this is a great way to turn any dog into a training junkie. In most cases, I can tell that the dog’s got it when he starts testing the behavior. He’ll walk over to me and stand staring at me, waiting until I turn towards him. As soon as I look at him, he’ll lie down, as if asking, “Is this it?”

Once the dog’s figured out the game, I can quickly put his lying down behavior on cue so that he’ll do it when I ask. Of course, just because a dog will lie down on cue in my office doesn’t mean he’ll be able to do so in the kitchen, the backyard, or the pet store. We’ll need to practice the behavior in each of these locations separately, but once we’ve got the behavior on cue we’re well on our way to having a solid down in any location.

So, how long does this process take? Even the most excitable adolescent foster dog usually starts offering downs within an hour or two of arriving at my house. I usually have these dogs crated or tethered next to me while I work on my computer, which means that the entire time they’re learning to lie down I’m also able to work on other important tasks. Within a couple days, most dogs have learned that lying down quietly in the house is the best way to earn attention and affection. This makes them much better companions than dogs who learn that barking, stealing objects, or running around is the best way to engage their humans.

What if your dog has already learned that obnoxious behavior earns your attention? No problem! Simply start marking and rewarding him every time he’s lying down quietly, and you may be amazed at how quickly his behavior improves.

This process works equally well to teach other behaviors that dogs offer naturally, such as sit, bow, and stand. It’s easy, elegant, and (best of all!) perfect for lazy trainers! Have you ever taught any behaviors by capturing them? Give it a try, and let us know how it goes!

2 responses to “Keep Calm and Lie Down

  1. Bluff Country Shepherdess

    No wonder I never thought of this…it’s MUCH too easy! ;-)
    I’m embarassed to admit that ‘down’ was always one of the more difficult of the basic commands for me to teach. Then again, perhaps that’s because I was taught to train the “old” way.

  2. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one too lazy to load the clicker. That makes me happy.

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