Teach your dog the down command

One of the most useful behaviors you can teach your dog is to lie down on command. Using a food lure, you can teach this behavior in four simple steps.

In order to focus on the training, your dog needs to be comfortable, so start with the right training environment. It may be easier for your dog to practice down on an uncarpeted surface where his feet can easily slide out from underneath him. However, some dogs dislike the feeling of a cold, hard floor and are much more likely to lie down on a soft spot, such as carpet, grass or a doggy bed. Pick the type of surface you think your dog is most likely to lie down on and be prepared to switch if needed. 

Step 1: Lure Your Dog Into a Down

To lure your dog into a down, you will need a handful of smal individual treats that can be doled out one by one. Nestle the treats in the palm of your hand. With your dog in a sitting position, hold the food lure out in front of his nose. Treat initially when his nose starts to follow your hand toward the floor. As his head follows, mark with a “good” and then treat again. Continue to treat any progress toward the floor, such as his elbow bending or his legs starting to straighten. Some dogs will immediately slide into a laying position while others may need multiple treats on the way down. If your dog stands up, ask him to sit and then begin luring him to the floor again. Once your dog is lying down fully, treat him while he's there to promote a longer duration down and then say a release word like “OK,” and toss a treat to get him into a stand again. 

Step 2: Remove the Food Lure

Once your dog is readily following a lure into the down position and is only getting a treat after he is lying down, teach him to follow a hand signal. Shape your empty hand so that it appears that you are holding a treat as you move it toward the floor. As soon as your dog lies down, mark with a “good” and immediately treat with your opposite hand. If your dog is reliant upon the food lure to move into the down position, you may have to continue to hold a treat in your luring hand at first, but instead of rewarding him with that treat, give him a treat from your other hand when he gets into the right position.

Step 3: Phase Out the Hand Signal

Once your dog is following an empty hand into a down, you can decrease the hand signal. Start by moving your hand all the way to the floor when you give the command; over time, stop the gesture further from the floor, say at ankle height. If this is successful, the next time bend only to calf height and so on. Eventually you should be able to stand up straight and use only a small downward motion of your hand to indicate that your dog should lie down. If your dog doesn’t go into a down right away on the hand signal, wait a few seconds; most dogs will eventually slide into the down if they have the time to think it out. However, if he doesn’t go into the down, ask again and move your hand closer to the ground on the next try. 

Step 4: Add a Verbal Cue

Add a verbal command by saying “down” one second before you give the hand signal to go into the down. Repeat many times in a row; soon your dog should be pairing the word and the hand signal. Eventually, your dog should begin to respond just to the verbal command. If he doesn’t, delay the time between the word and the hand signal a little longer. Dogs are very visual; to get your dog to pay attention to a vocal cue, like “down,” you will need to say the word before you give the visual signal.

For dogs who are hesitant to lie down all the way, I use a leg bridge: I sit on the floor and extend my leg, with my heel on the floor and my knee slightly raised, to create a "bridge." I hold the treat on the other side of my leg so that the dog has to bend down and crawl under my raised knee to get it. If the dog tries to go around or over my leg, rather than under, I remove the treat and get him back on the original side. You may need to hold your leg closer to the ground to get a smaller dog to move all the way into a down. As your dog’s body moves into the down, immediately mark with a "good" and give him a jackpot of treats. Repeat a few times and then try without the leg bridge, as most dogs will master the down after a few successful tries crawling under your leg.