How to Train a Dog to Sit From a Distance
Why Should I Train a “Distance Down”?
The “Distance Down” consists of training your dog to drop into a down position on command when she is at a distance from you. This is a great example of a behavior that will can both serve as a really practical tool for every-day living as well as a foundation for upper level competition. (Note that a “distance sit,” while not as secure as a “distance down” can be a useful command as well, especially for large dogs who physically have trouble downing quickly. It is trained essentially identically, except you are asking for sits rather than downs.)
In every-day life, there are many situations where I prefer a “distance down” to a recall for controlling my dog in an off-leash situation. This is not to say that a solid recall should not be an important goal, but in high stimulation, high distraction, or potentially dangerous situations, you may be much better off downing your dog than calling him to come.
Consider something as simple as your canine gets out your front door and runs across the street after a squirrel. If you call your dog to come, she’s going to be crossing the street again. There is at least some risk, and possibly a high risk, that the dog could be hit by a car upon her return. How much better if your dog is trained to drop on command (and I would add a “stay” for good measure), at which point you can cross the street when it is safe and retrieve your dog.
Another frequently beneficial aspect of downing rather than recalling is that it will LOWER, rather than RAISE the excitement level of the dog. In a high stimulation situation, especially if you are concerned about aggression toward or from another dog, downing your dog can frequently defuse the situation, whereas a recall may lead to a chase with unpleasant consequences. Note that if it is the other dog you are worried about, you will have to use your judgment about whether it is wiser to let your dog run away if she can, vs. trying to defuse the situation with the down. If it is your dog who may be aggressive – if you’ve really trained the distance down sufficiently –she can’t aggress and stay down at the same time.
What about for upper level canine obedience competition? First, you don’t want to practice the Open-required “drop-on-recall” (wherein you call the dog to “come,” and then when she is part-way toward you, you call or signal a “down”) until you have gotten your CD. This is because you will be doing straight recalls in Novice and you really don’t want your green dog wondering at this stage of her training whether she is going to be dropped or not. However, if you practice distance downs as I will describe below, there will be no confusion with the straight recall, but once you are ready to work on Open, the drop-on-recall will, from the dog’s point of view, be a simple variation of what you’ve already been doing. You will also, of course, be doing essentially a distance down in the signals part of Utility.
How Can I Train a “Distance Down”?
First, training the “distance down” presupposes that you have already taught your dog to down next to you, and: (1) are no longer relying on a treat lure to get the dog to do it (although a reward is fine) and (2) have taught the dog that “down” means “down” until you tell her otherwise. (If you don’t know how to do 1&2 email me!)
Second, I use two different techniques (and there is no necessary order in which to work them – you can spend five minutes on one and then five minutes on the other a couple of times a day and in a few days you should have significant progress), because I really want TWO slightly different things: One: I want the dog to drop into a down FAST. This command is not very useful (either for real life or competition) if the dog spends several minutes thinking about it first. Two: I want the dog to go into a drop from far away from me, and regardless of how she is oriented to me (i.e., her back to me; my back to her, facing each other, whatever).
To get speed on the “down” command: Once the canine can "down" on command next to me, I start with a six foot leash and lots of treats. I run backwards and sound as excited as I can, saying idiotic things like: "wanna play? what're we gonna do now?" and then I suddenly give a firm "down" command accompanied by my hand with the treat heading for the floor. (Yes, initially for this exercise, I AM luring). I use lots of praise for the down, of course! I repeat this exercise quite a bit, each time running off in a different direction, backward or sideways, with the goal of getting the dog used to downing quickly from a run and thinking it's fun. When initiating this game, I may do a sort of modified play bow as I give the down command. It’s important that the dog does NOT get the treat until she is all the way down -- meaning the butt cannot be still be up in the air. I may push on the rear end if necessary to help the dog understand. Once the canine is good at this with the lure, I move to reward and if I have my eye on eventually doing Utility, I start using the raised arm signal for the drop instead of the luring down motion.
To teach the dog to “down” from a distance: When you first ask your dog to down at a distance from you, she will most likely come to you first and then lie down. She is not being difficult, she is telling you what her understanding of the word “down” is: i.e., “lie down next to my handler.” That is doubtless how you have trained it, and therefore how she understands it. To proceed to get her to understand it differently (i.e., “lie down wherever you happen to be when I give you the command), you must, in essence, explain it.
To “explain” this to the dog, I am going to first tether her and then give the down command from as far away as I can, but still allowing the dog to succeed. Initially, that distance maybe only a foot! (Be sure to tether the dog on a flat collar or harness, not on a collar that will constrict the throat or a head harness. You want to restrain the dog, not stress her or distract her with unnecessary discomfort.) The first time you do this, your dog will likely try to come toward you, but of course, the tether prevents this and helps the dog understand that you want her to "down" in the spot that she's already in. It helps with this if you have already weaned the dog from always being lured with a treat. Give the command the way you usually would (preferably with both a verbal and a hand signal. If she just strains at the leash and looks at you puzzled, try squatting down and patting the floor as you tell her “down.” Be patient. This is ONE situation in which I will repeat the command, because the dog is almost certainly puzzled. Praise her, of course, when she downs, in soft, but not too excited tones, or she is likely to pop back up. To help the dog understand not to move, I will generally add “stay” as I move back toward the dog and give a treat while she is still in the down position. If she pops up, give her a gentle “no” and ask her to down again.
If your dog cannot do this with you even just a foot away, work more on the first exercise for a while and then come back to this. The other possibility is that you need to go back and work the “down” from the beginning, including a guided down if the dog won’t do it without a treat or pops up without being released.
Assuming your dog “gets it” from a foot or so away, gradually increase your distance and fade the tether by instead using a long-line trained around a pole or a tree (that you keep hold of) -- so you can give the dog some slack, but prevent her from coming all the way to you.
Merging speed and distance
So, using both methods, the dog is learning both to down from speed AND to down at a distance from the handler. As the dog gets better at these, I begin to play a game where I throw a treat and as soon as the dog gets it (or when she 's on her way back -- note there is no recall command, she 's just coming back because she knows I have more treats and she’s done a lot of “two-treat recalls”), I give a "down" command. When she downs, I praise and add "stay" and then walk over and give her a treat before releasing. I usually alternate asking for downs with throwing the next treat between my legs with a "front" command -- which is useful for training straight fronts and it's also FUN! (Note: if you are not in a secure area, you can do this with the dog on a long-line.) I'll also play this game with toys. If the dog can't do this -- back up and work the other two techniques more and/or throw the toy or treat a very short distance so the dog is closer to you when you ask for the down.
As a form of proofing, I will randomly give the drop command when the dog is out at the end of a retractable leash (ie., heading away from me). I usually train that as a "distance sit" first (same as above for the down, but sit instead). A failure to drop in that case gets a leash correction. I don't do this until the dog clearly has the concept of downing at a distance from me. Finally, to proof the dog to downing from any orientation to the handler: I'll leave the dog in a stand-stay, walk away with my back to the dog, and give the down command while facing away from her. It helps to start this with very little distance, in front of a mirror.
Happy Downs, everyone! Remember to make it fun!