Gradual steps will help your dog get it.
-by Johanna Teresi
I bet your dog listens to "sit" but "down" is more of a challenge.
Or maybe your dog will only "down" from a sitting position, but not from a standing one. Maybe your dog "downs" with no problem, but your back is beginning to hurt from bending all the way over to the floor to signal the down.
First, let's start with the basics. With a treat ready in your hand, ask your dog to sit. Then take the treated hand and immediately place it directly under your dog's muzzle and move your hand down to the floor. Keeping it on the floor, move your hand away from your dog. Do not say the "down" command. Your dog will probably follow the treat. If your dog "downs," reward with a C/T (click and treat). Repeat 5-10 times. Now add the "down" command immediately before you lure your dog into the "down" with a treat. C/T when your dog is in the "down" position. Repeat 5-10 times. Then switch to occasional rewards.
If your dog pops up from the sit when you try to lure him into a "down," you may need to first move your hand downward in a straight line instead of down and out. Gently hold your dog from popping up by placing your free hand on your dog's back with very little pressure.
Maybe your dog just doesn't want to go into a "down" at all. Sit on the floor and raise one leg with your foot still on the floor so that your leg forms an arc. The goal will be to get your dog to crawl under your leg. Your leg should be just high enough so that when your dog is under he is forced to stay in the "down" position, but your leg should not be exerting pressure on your dog's back. First, you will reward your dog for inching toward your leg. Repeat this step 5-10 times. Next, reward your dog for inching toward your leg again, but this time your dog should be a bit closer than in the previous step. Repeat this 5-10 times. Gradually increase the distance that your dog needs to travel until at least his head is under your leg. Repeat each step 5-10 times. Keep going gradually until your dog's back is under your leg, which gently forces the dog into the "down". Remember to repeat and C/T each step closer 5-10 times. Once your dog readily "downs" with your leg, try to remove your leg and lure your dog into the "down" as described in paragraph two.
Some dogs will only "down" from a sit but not from a stand. You can use behavior catching to solve this problem. Watch your dog throughout the day, and when you see that your dog is about to "down" voluntarily, immediately say "down." Then C/T the "down." If this doesn't work, then try luring your dog under your leg as described above.
The final step after your dog will "down" without a treat lure is to change your hand motion to the floor to a hand signal. First ask your dog to ""down"" by lowering your open hand, palm down, to the floor. Gradually lessen the amount you lower your hand until the motion becomes a subtle signal which you can make without bending over. Remember to change in gradual steps and C/T each step 5-10 times before changing to the next. When your dog "downs" reliably with the hand signal, switch to occasional rewards.
Great! Now your dog really does know how to "down!"
Johanna Teresi is a professional dog trainer and owner of Four Legged Scholars LLC. fourleggedscholars.com.