How do you get a dog to “down” when it doesn’t want to? Well, there are several approaches, like shaping, capturing, and luring, and the technique to use depends upon the individual dog.
When I trained my two German Shepherds, I lured them into the down. It was simple, just hold a treat in your hand and raise it above their heads until their butts hit the ground. This is not the best way to train a new behavior, but back then I didn’t know better. I haven’t lured in about two years, and apparently I have lost the skill. There is, however, no need to lure behaviors like the sit and down because all dogs do it.
I love capturing and shaping because it allows the animal to think and offer behaviors that come naturally to them, which in turn will get rewarded. My training mantra is “behaviors that get rewarded get repeated.” I did not invent that phase, but I sure like it and have proven its veracity time and time again.
Now I’m training Gretchen and Tuvok the down, and was having a great deal of trouble capturing that behavior for a few days. Then I made a brilliant discovery: just let them run in the yard, hard and fast, then bring them inside when they are absolutely exhausted. Once inside, they would simply plot themselves down in exhaustion. That’s when I captured the behavior by clicking and treating (CT).
They got about three small bits of treats in the down position, then the fourth one I tossed away from them so that they would get up for it. That way I’d set them up to offer another down so that I could click and treat.
Admittedly, I had to wait for them to settle once more, but it was worth the weight. Again they lay back down and received another CT. That took me two days to teach them. They now offer the downs, even when they don’t seem particularly tired, and because they have been rewarded for offering the behavior in the past, they are apt to offer once more.
With my pomeranians, however, I had to shape the downs. Shaping is the process where behaviors are broken into tiny, incremental steps and rewarded so that eventually the animal will offer the entire behavior. Here’s how I shaped the down:
- CT for a sit. Did this several times, tossing the treats away from the dog so as to reset the dog to repeat the behavior
- Whenever the dog sat and lowered its head, CT. Rinse and repeat by tossing the treat away from the dog.
- Whenever the dog sat, lowered its head AND extended a paw forward CT with a huge jackpot, then toss the treat away from the dog.
- By this time the dog will plop itself into a down. When this happens, it gets another jackpot.
Some dogs pick this up extremely quickly, while for others, such as my poms, I had to repeat these steps over several days. With Gretchen and Tuvok, who are only 11 weeks old, I’m now doing a combination of capturing and shaping the downs. I look out for when they offer the downs, and sometimes they are far away from me. I have to watch them, and have clicker and treats ready. Sometimes, however, they come to me for training and offer a sit. That’s when I start shaping them the way I shaped my pomeranians.
It’s still a work in progress, at least for the puppies, but I know that in the end they will have a fast and reliable sit and down. The sits were trained by capturing, and I am now adding the cue to the behavior.