The Down - The art of Chill
Previously, we discussed the Sit in some detail. Along with the Sit another fundamental exercise is the Down.
This week we will look at why the Down is so important to teach our dogs. We will also look at some possible reasons as to why your dog resists or refuses the Down exercise.
Here are a couple of common methods for teaching the down:
From the Sit apply downward pressure on the withers and lift the front paws towards the front of the dog. Done gently this will place the dog in a down position, in a slow and controlled manner.
Again, from the Sit, place a food lure close to the nose and move it slowly vertically down and slightly forwards – away from the dog - so that the dog follows it. The dog will down to maintain focus on the lure
Right, so there are a couple of options for getting our pups to down…now what?
The Down is most commonly used for times when we expect the dog to hold a position for longer periods of time. Minutes rather than seconds. Or even in times where we are expecting to stay for much longer, say at a beach, café or park.
Just like Sit we teach the dog to remain in one place for a longer period of time when we couple the Down with the Stay.
Also similar to the Sit there are intrinsic – happening inside – goings on that affect the dogs when in the Down position.
You see, height is important to dogs, if they can be higher than other dogs, essentially, they feel better. Much in the same way that an adolescent who finally reaches their parents height feels a sense of accomplishment, status and pride, or a teacher who sits on a stool and has the kids sit on the floor to capture attention. A common action performed by dogs, especially when they meet each other for the first time, is placing their head over the withers of another dog. This has been noted to be a signal of hierarchy. We would say “Hi, I am an Engineer earning bucket loads of cash and I drive a fast car, who are you?” dog would put their chins on to the withers of another dog. This is obviously easier if you’re taller than the other dog.
Now, a Down position reduces/eliminates that height and places the dog in a vulnerable position or at least a position of lesser status.
Vulnerable, because the dog is doing what they can to avoid a conflict – that’s what dogs do, they avoid conflict– and ensure a positive outcome to a situation.
For example a dog will Down:
When you shout at them or get heavy handed with them,
when they meet a dog they might want to get to know
when they meet a dog that is anxious or aggressive
when they are tired and want a break
when they are exited and playful
The first example highlights the subordinate behaviour that everyone will have seen at some point. A dog gets into trouble and cowers to show how afraid they are and to also highlight how they acknowledge the person. Notice that this is an active response, this has nothing to do with “Alpha rolling”.
The second example indicates that the dog is doing its utmost to show the smaller dog that they mean no harm, you might even see dogs push themselves into the ground to put their point across so they can have a little play.
The third one is a little trickier right? Why make yourself vulnerable when you can avoid a situation? Dogs are designed conflict resolvers. If they can they will resolve a conflict before it happens, reading signs such as a frightened dog leads to empowering that anxious dog out of their frightened state and calming them down. The aggressive dog will be met with a similar down, but now it’s about showing intention to avoid escalating to a fight.
When dogs are tired, they will often plonk themselves to the ground and pant, tongue hanging out and one flank on the ground. Often, and conveniently they will find a cool place to relax in, like a mud hole. What they are doing is placing the greatest surface area of their body onto the cooler ground to help get cool again.
The last example shows a dog that is exited, bouncy and ready to go. They are super charged for what is about to happen…but then they catch themselves, they down to show you yes I’m excited, but in a good way, let’s go already!
Why is all this important? Well I’m glad you asked!
What we have talked about so far is that in contrast to the Sit, the Down is more about relaxation, either theirs or anothers, depending on the circumstance. Similar to the Sit, the Down is still attentive, though this time we are looking at staying in this position for a much longer period of time.
We have stated that the Down is a physical indicator of hierarchical status. This is where some owners find they have a problem with the Down. The dog resists or even refuses to get into the position, because they should not have to Down for them based on the hierarchy of the family unit. Or they will resist or refuse based on a lack of trust. Either way the repercussion of such a poorly balanced relationship within the household can lead to at best an unhappy owner with a dog that will not comply, itself a high risk. At worst, however it can result in the re-homing or impounding of the dog.
Earning a dogs trust is critical, if your reading this it’s a no brainer for you anyway. With a dogs trust, you are allowed to expect more from your dog and your dog will comply more readily and more often, even in situations that give them discomfort. For example, teaching the dog to Down.
As a last note as to why Down is so important, I can only say that in studying dogs with issues, I can say that most dogs with some sort of problem will move more and lie down less. Because these problem dogs are generally in an exited state that they cannot easily get out of, they resort to constant movement or activity. Think of the tiger at the zoo that constantly does laps of its cage, in order to combat the stress of its situation the tiger is pacing, it cannot lie down and simply relax. It’s the same for your dog. An anxious dog will find an activity that results in movement, they will appear fidgety, biting and scratching itself for no reason or walking/running around nervously.
Teaching the Down and building duration is key to teaching the dog to relax. That’s right, relaxing is a skill. In order to teach Down yourself, you will be best served by having a solid relationship with your dog.