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Lying down on cue is one of the most common basic dog training skills — and for good reason! “Down” is a simple, versatile behavior that can make it easier to live with your dog.
Just because it’s a common position doesn’t mean teaching this trick is always a cake walk, though. We’ve put together a guide outlining how to train your dog to lie down and troubleshoot common issues along the way.
Let’s dive in!
Why is it important for your dog to know how to lie down?
The ability to lie down on cue comes in handy in real-life scenarios
Down is a great position for your dog to be in when you:
- Hang out at a coffee shop or restaurant patio
- Chat with your neighbor on the sidewalk
- Greet guests inside your home
- Want your companion to settle in a busy environment
- Are hanging around other dogs and want to ensure your pup’s posture is non confrontational
- And so on
Lying down can be a foundation for more advanced behaviors
What’s more — a solid knowledge of how to lie down when asked sets your dog up to learn more advanced skills! These include tricks like roll over, go to bed, play dead, and more.
Down is also a naturally more relaxed position than a sit or stand, which means it’s ideal for duration or distance stays (whether you compete in dog sports or just need your dog to stay put while you get the mail).
What you need to teach your dog to lie down
A reinforcer (like treats or a favorite toy)
When we ask our dogs to work for us, it’s only fair we pay them. Reinforcers (often called rewards in everyday conversation) are things 1) our dogs love that 2) are easy for us to give them during a training session.
Common reinforcers include:
- Store-bought dog treats
- Small pieces of human food (like meat or cheese)
- Your dog’s kibble (if they’re particularly food motivated, have a sensitive stomach, or you need to be calorie conscious)
- A favorite toy
If possible, let your dog decide what they like best. Consider setting out multiple rewards, seeing which one they go to first, and choosing that to teach new behaviors! (You can also vary between a few favorites to keep them interested.)
The more excited your dog is for their reinforcer, the more motivated they’ll be during your training session.
A conditioned reward marker
If you’ve heard of “clicker training” (first popularized by marine mammal trainers) then you’ve been exposed to the idea of a reward marker.
In technical terms, a marker is a conditioned stimulus that predicts a primary reinforcer. Put more simply? A reward marker is a sound or signal that “marks” exactly what your dog did to earn their reinforcement. This makes it possible for us to communicate clearly during training sessions — even if we’re unable to deliver a treat precisely when our dogs offer the right behavior.
Common reward markers include:
- A thumbs up (particularly useful for deaf dogs)
- Other easy-to-make noises
No marker is inherently better than the others. What matters is that you pick one that works for you and stick to it! Consistency is key.
How to charge your reward marker
To make sure your dog understands that your marker sound or signal predicts a reward, spend a few sessions conditioning them to the stimulus. (If you already use reward markers in your training, skip on to the next section.)
You can charge your dog’s reward marker by:
- First making your noise or visual signal
- Pausing for a second
- Then giving your dog their reward — this turns your chosen marker into a predictor of good things to come
- Repeating multiple times!
Eventually your dog will start to respond to the noise itself — they might run towards you before you even reach for their treat or toy. This indicates that they’re forming the right association.
How to use your reward marker in a training session
Once your dog is conditioned to your chosen reward marker, you can start using it in training sessions to teach new skills.
It’s important to mark the right behavior the instant your dog performs it. Accurate timing makes for more effective teaching! And remember to always follow your marker with a reward — you have about three seconds 1.5 seconds to deliver reinforcement, give or take, to keep up your dog’s conditioned association.
Before working with your dog, make sure you’re in a good headspace. It’s not always easy to communicate with another species. Even simple behaviors like lying down on cue can confuse our pets at first!
Be prepared to take things slowly and keep your training sessions upbeat. Offer lots of praise and affection when your dog makes an effort — and keep things simple to get more buy-in from your dog, especially if they are an adolescent.
How to train your dog to lie down
Now that we have all the necessary supplies, it’s time for the nitty gritty. Here are step-by-step instructions to teach your dog their new down cue! You can make your own choice of training techniques.
Train down by luring your dog into position
Luring is the most common method to teach our dogs new skills — it’s especially great for pets who are easily distracted or crave constant feedback from their owners.
Here’s how to teach your dog to lie down using luring:
- Start by holding your dog’s reward (a high value training treat or favorite toy) in your hand. You can put it in your palm or between your fingers, depending on the size and intensity of your dog.
- Move the reward in front of your dog’s nose. They can be in either a sitting or standing position, though it’s usually easier from a sit to begin with.
- Slowly lower your hand towards the ground, so that your dog’s snout points to the floor as they follow your lure.
- As your dog looks downward, they should lower their front elbows and then their back legs.
- Adjust your lure based on your dog’s positioning. Some pups lean too far forward while others don’t follow the tasty treat or fun toy as closely — experiment to find what works best.
- The moment your dog’s stomach hits the ground in a lying down position, mark and reward! Praise and release them to try again.
- Repeat this multiple times until your dog begins anticipating the movement of the lure and falling into position more quickly.
- If your dog is reluctant to follow the lure at all, try practicing in a separate session. Reward them for keeping their nose near your hand, even if it’s just small movements at first. Don’t be afraid of taking baby steps — eventually they’ll start to understand that following the lure leads to reinforcement!
Teach down by capturing your dog’s offered behaviors
Capturing your dog’s offered behaviors, and then shaping them into the final picture you want, is another way you can teach your dog to lie down. These sessions tend to be more mentally draining than luring, making them a great option for dogs with excess energy!
Capturing can be frustrating for pets who are anxious or insecure, though, so remember to pay attention to your dog’s body language and change things up if they seem stressed.
Here’s how to shape your dog’s down position:
- Have your reward and marker ready.
- Consider giving your dog a cue that it’s time to start capturing. This can be helpful to avoid confusion about when you want them to offer behaviors and when you don’t!
- Wait until your dog lies down on their own.
- At the exact moment they do, mark and reward!
- If they get “stuck” in the lying down position, toss a training treat off to the side for them to retrieve. This can help them reset so they’re able to offer another repetition.
- Repeat until they start to realize that lying down gets them a reward!
If your dog doesn’t offer you a down position, you can do a few things:
- Make sure the surface is comfortable. Your dog might be reluctant to lie down if the ground is too hard, cold, or hot — you can always work on a soft dog bed or blanket to make things easier.
- If changing the surface doesn’t help, consider using the luring method instead.
- If you’re really committed to shaping, mark and reward small movements towards the desired behavior instead of waiting for the completed position. For example, you could mark if your dog looks down or sinks into a stretch — and then slowly increase your criteria over time. This can be a complicated (and sometimes confusing) process, but it can also be really fun if you and your dog are into it!
Add a visual cue (hand signal)
Once your dog seems to be getting it — either reliably following your lure or offering downs on their own in a capturing session — it’s time to add a visual cue.
If you’ve been luring your dog into position, your hand signal will likely end up as a natural shortening, or smaller version, of that lure. If you’ve been capturing your dog’s behavior, you’ll need to be present to add the cue — this is difficult but can be the only way with some reluctant-to-follow dogs. In this case, you can pick any visual cue you want.
Common hand signals for down are:
- A finger pointing at the floor
- A flat palm facing the ground
- A fist moving towards the floor
To start fading your lure in favor of a visual cue:
- Test the waters by giving your lure without a treat in your hand. Does your dog lie down? Fantastic! If they instead seem confused, go back to your lure for now and try again in another session.
- Once your dog can follow your hand without a treat, slowly start shifting from the full motion to just the signal you want to use.
- Always mark and reward correct repetitions!
- Don’t be afraid to take steps back in the process if either of you gets frustrated.
- Eventually your dog will be able to lie down on just your visual cue.
(Most dogs find it easier to pay attention to our body movements than our words, but that isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. If you know your dog is particularly verbal and want to skip the hand signal to go right to a verbal cue, feel free! Just remember to change things up if your pup is struggling, as some dogs will get so frustrated they check out completely.)
Add a verbal cue
To add a verbal cue, pair your new learned behavior stimulus — the word “down” or “lie” or whatever you choose — with your dog’s already-known hand signal:
- Say “down”
- Pause for just a breath, then immediately give your visual cue
- If your dog responds, mark and reward!
- Repeat several times
- Eventually your dog will start to lie down right when they hear your verbal instead of waiting for the hand signal
Some dogs have a difficult time separating the pieces of a training picture from each other. If your dog is struggling to learn a verbal cue, make sure:
- You don’t give the verbal at the exact same time as the hand signal. If you do, your dog might “tune out” the sound in favor of paying attention to your motion.
- You don’t wait too long to give your hand signal after saying your verbal. You want just enough of a pause that your dog separates out the cues — but not so much that they can’t make the connection.
Troubleshoot along the way
Are you having a hard time teaching your dog to lie down on cue? Feeling frustrated with training difficulties? Here are some common issues.
Is your dog experiencing physical pain or discomfort?
Some dogs hesitate to lie down on cue because it’s uncomfortable for them due to arthritis, obesity, an acute injury (like a pulled muscle), or chronic health conditions like hip dysplasia.
If you notice that your dog is stiff or seems stressed in your sessions — especially if they used to lie down willingly and now seem reluctant — consider visiting your veterinarian for a pain assessment. They’ll help you come up with a treatment plan to get back in the training groove!
Does your dog understand what you’re asking for?
Our dogs experience the world differently than we do. Sometimes we think we’re communicating one thing when they’re actually perceiving another.
If your dog seems confused about lying down on cue even after multiple training sessions, try to:
- Make sure you always use the same visual and verbal cues.
- Get everyone in your household on the same page about what signals and words to use for different behaviors.
- Be aware of other subtle body movements that might confuse your dog.
- Practice giving your reward markers on your own, without your dog around, to build muscle memory.
- Video your sessions so you can evaluate your marker and reward timing.
- Make sure you aren’t asking your dog to perform in unfamiliar environments or situations before they’re ready.
When in doubt, get help from a professional
It’s what trainers are here for! If you and your dog are struggling to polish up their “down” cue, reach out to a force-free professional trainer who can work with you one on one.
Generalize your dog’s new skill in different contexts
You’ve followed these steps, and after several training sessions your dog can reliably lie down on cue inside your home. Yay — your work is over, right?
Well, not quite.
Dogs often struggle to generalize behaviors. This means they might be able to follow basic cues in a familiar environment but still struggle to perform out and about. Don’t worry: This is completely normal, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your training! It just means your dog needs more practice to understand that “down” always means to lie down, regardless of where they are.
Here are some helpful tips for generalizing, or proofing, your dog’s new cue:
- The first time you ask your dog to lie down in a new context, take a few steps back in your training process to make it easier for them. Use your hand signal (or even your lure) along with your verbal cue to set them up for success.
- Break new situations into baby steps. Instead of asking your dog to go from lying down while you stand in front of them in your living room to lying down while your back is turned at a busy park, separate your goals into bite-sized chunks — in the living room while you’re turned to the side, in your backyard, out on a walk, at a private Sniffspot, and so on.
- Make things more difficult slowly so your dog doesn’t get discouraged. You want to end your training sessions on a positive note, not with frustration!
Enjoy your dog!
Phew — you did it! Now that your best friend is able to lie down on cue, you can enjoy even more of the world together. Give yourself (and your pup) a pat on the back, and keep practicing to maintain the skill.
Trainer that reviewed this article
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