Dog Obedience – How To Build A Strong “Down-Stay” That Will Be Functional Anywhere You Go!

I usually begin teaching the down/stay from the sit position. It is important to first note that I break this exercise into two elements.

The first element is to teach the dog to go from either the sit position (and later the standing position), directly into the down, so that the dog’s belly is touching the ground.

The second element of this exercise is to teach the dog to actually stay in that position. First, I begin by teaching the dog to go down fast. I start with the dog in the sit position, and grab the leash… maybe a foot from the snap… with my right hand. I’ll be standing so that the dog is in heel position (with my right hand on the leash about a foot from the snap) and so that my left hand will be touching the dog’s back, slightly behind the shoulder bones.

Next, I issue the command “down”. Immediately after I say the command “down” (not at the same time, mind you) I will give a pop in a downward or slightly forward direction. At the same time that I pop, I will push and rock with my left hand so that the dog’s legs lay flat under him and he goes fast and smoothly into the down position. As soon as the dog is completely down, I praise.

When I’m ready to let the dog get up, I give the dog his release command. The release command I use is “take a break.” So I tell the dog, “Take a break,” and at the same time use a little touch and a little bit of motion. Please notice that I do not use the stay command. The stay is actually a DOUBLE command. There is absolutely no occasion where you will tell your dog “down” and then he will be allowed to immediately pop back up. So, if you tell your dog “down,”… of course he should “stay”. There is no need to say “stay” “stay” “wait” “don’t get up” “stay” “wait” “stay”… this is ridiculous. It’s repetitious and it over-complicates things for the dog.

When I tell the dog “down,” he learns that he must continue holding the down/stay until I give him the release command (which in my case, is “take a break”). I use the “take a break” for pretty much all commands. When I tell the dog to “sit,” he should continue sitting until I tell him to “take a break”.

If I tell him to climb up and stand on a chair, or a table, or an object, or to go to his place or get in the crate… the dog knows he must continue doing that until I tell him to “take a break”. There is no need to complicate and confuse your dog by using double commands. So, tell your dog one command… “down,” and he will know that he must remain in the down position until you tell him to “take a break”.

When I teach the down to my clients, I start by teaching the dog to lie down on top of a manhole. And what I tell my client is that their dog will do one of four things:

The first thing he may do is continue staying in the down position… at which point I will go back to him and praise him and tell him that he is a “good boy” and that he did exactly as I asked.

The second thing he may do is break the down/stay, but still be standing in the exact spot that I told him to go down on… which in this case would be the manhole. My reaction is to immediately step back into the dog and reissue the command “down,” and then pop in a forward and downward direction and with my left hand, press the dog into the down position. Once he’s back down, he gets no praise until he has stayed there for a couple of seconds… at which point I can go back, praise, and then give him the release command.

The third thing he might do is stand up and walk ten feet from the manhole where he was laying down. If he does this, you need to go all the way to him and say “No!”, pop the leash, and walk him back into the direction of the manhole. Say “No!”, and then give a pop again, the whole entire time you rush him back to the manhole. Once you are standing on top of the manhole, repeat or reissue the command “down,” followed by a pop.

The fourth thing he may do when you tell him “down,” is to roll over on his back. If your dog does this, he is engaging in what I call, “passive resistance.” When the dog is laying on his back, he is not in the down position, so what the handler will need to do is repeat the down command and, instead of popping, simply take two or three steps backwards. Usually what happens is the dog rolls back over into the down position. On the other hand, if he should roll back over, into the down position, but then immediately stands up… it is the owner’s responsibility to get back to the dog, repeat the down command, and pop downwards (as the left hand pushes the dog into the down position). If you are lucky, he won’t get up, and instead will simply roll back into a proper down position. You must then go back and praise your dog.

Occasionally, when the dog rolls on his back as the owner takes two or three steps away, the dog will not roll into the down position. If this happens, the handler should pull gently on the leash. At this point, the dog will usually roll back into the down position. By now you will have taught your dog to start understanding that he should:

1: Go into the down position, and

2: Stay in the down position. The most important key is that, no matter what he does… if he gets up, breaks the down/stay, or moves… you need to immediately put him, not only back into the down position, but put him back into the down position in the exact spot where you initially placed him.

From here I will return to the first step which is getting the dog to go into the down position, but now with less help from your left hand. How I achieve this is to gradually approach the point where I can stand up straight without bending over the dog, give just a verbal command to go down, and then give a pop on the leash (but with no body English and no physical help other than the pop to make the dog go down).

So once the dog shows you that he understands what down means, then you can progress to the point where you just give him the verbal command and the leash correction. You can build up speed by doing a series of downs and then immediate releases… interspersed with some physical play or a throw of the ball. After building up a speedy response to your commands, you are ready to start with proofing.

Proofing is done with the exact same methods that I just described. However, what I do differently is that I approach the exercise from the perspective that I already know the dog understands what is expected of him. So, I tell the dog to go down, and the first thing I do is build up time and distance. I get to the point where I can tell the dog “Down” and walk away, first ten feet, then fifteen, then twenty feet. I can tie the leash to a tree and keep most of the slack on the ground and actually walk 50 to 100 feet away. If the dog should get up, I’m going to say “No, no, no, no” all the way back to the dog, and once I get back to the dog, I will take him back to the spot where I originally put him into the down position and repeat the command, “Down,” and then give a pop.

After I have got the dog consistently holding a down/stay, and I’ve built up a lot of time and distance, I’ll start incorporating more distractions. At this point, I’ll go back to working the dog on a six foot leash. The first distraction I use is the ball or the toy. Tell the dog “Down,” make the dog go into the down position, then produce a ball and bounce it once. As your dog gets up, you immediately correct him back into the down position. If the dog stays there, you praise him. Then bounce the ball twice, three times and work up so that you can bounce the ball all around the dog’s body. Bounce it next to his tail. Bounce it next to his head. Bounce it next to his shoulders. Bounce it overhand. Throw the ball, and demand that the dog stays down. Every time the dog breaks and gets up to go after the ball, he’s learning something… and what he’s learning is to wait until you tell him to “Take a break.”

As a side note: many competition people will say, “Hey, this is going to kill the dog’s drive for the ball… the dog’s ‘ball drive.'” And my response to this is that it will not… if you use this proofing technique correctly. You can actually get to a point where you can tease your dog with the ball. The dog will become anxious for the ball, but will hold the down/stay. And when you give the release command, “take a break,” immediately throw the ball, so the dog learns that his reward for staying down is that he gets to go chase the ball.

The second distraction I use is food. Right before feeding time, I’ll put the dog in a down/stay and I’ll throw a few pieces of kibble around the dog. If the dog makes an attempt to eat the kibble, I will correct him back into the down. Within a very short period of time… two, three or four days after teaching the down/stay… you can train your dog so that you can place a bowl of food right next to him while he’s on the down. And he will not get up to eat it, because he learns that every time he gets up, he will be corrected and placed into the down position.

You may be thinking, “Hey, I’m going to be correcting the dog 100,000 times.” This will be true, if your correction lacks motivation. What that means is that your correction must have meaning. (In other words… pop harder!)

The third step to proofing your dog is to proof him around other dogs. I recommend finding a high foot-traffic area and place the dog in a down/stay with you close, perhaps two or three feet away from your dog. Have the distractions (another dog) walk by at a distance of anywhere from 20 feet or greater. If your dog gets up, simply correct him back into the down position. Soon, the dog will learn that he must hold the down/stay. When he can consistently hold the down stay with another dog 20 feet away from him, gradually move your distraction dog closer. Again, in a very short period of time you can get to the point where another dog can actually walk over your dog and your dog will remain in the down position.

You can also practice teaching your dog to hold a down/stay when you are out of sight. This exercise is good if you like to go to the Starbuck’s Coffee House and want to leave your dog in a down/stay while you go in and get a cup of coffee and a newspaper. The application for teaching your dog this exercise is exactly the same as we’ve done with the ball and the food and the other dog distractions. Simply place the dog in a down/stay, tie the end of the leash (either a 6-foot leash, or if you’d like, a 30 foot leash) to a post or a tree. Remember, as long as you keep slack in the line, your dog will not know he is tied up to the tree or post. Next, go and hide behind a building or another tree… someplace where the dog cannot see you. Spy on him. Just remember though, if you can see your dog… he can see you.

If he should get up as soon as you disappear from his vision, you need to immediately spring out from your hiding place, say “no, no, no, no, no” as you run back to your dog, and correct him back into the down/stay… right back into the spot you initially put him. It’s very simple. Using these techniques, you can teach your dog to be a street smart dog and hold a down/stay regardless of whatever else is going on.