Here are the three tricks: Luring, the bench, and successive approximation. They’re each useful on their own, but I’ve combined the three to illustrate a way to teach a young, unfocused, hyperactive dog the cue for lie down. These are the three tools and how to use them:
1. THE BENCH: Usually you see force-fetch trainers using benches, but placing your dog on an elevated surface isn’t just for the ear and toe pinchers among us. In my case, the training bench is just a simple kitchen chair. Placing your dog on an elevated platform does several things at once:
A. It puts the dog closer to your level, so you can establish the all-important eye contact rather than the less-useful top-of-head contact.
B. It forces the dog to focus and calm down. When you put a young pup on a table or bench, he’s immediately out of his element, which requires thought: “Where in the hell am I, and how do I get down from here?” Cooper eventually realized that he couldn’t safely exit the chair, so he stopped probing the edges and started paying attention to me.
A note of caution: Make sure you’ve got a soft landing for the pup and be ready for him to fall. Tie him up there with a slip knot if you’ve got a way to do it safely. Puppies have terrible depth perception; it’s almost certainly going to take your vigilance to keep him on the bench and make sure he’s not falling off. Cooper slid off the front of the chair the first time I put him there. It was only 18 inches to the grass, but he landed on his snout and carried on and limped for an hour before deciding that he was all right.
C. It’s the first step toward desensitizing a dog to fear of heights. Remember, get your dog comfortable with all of the situations that might scare him later.
2. THE LURE: Luring is simply using food or some other inherently desirable object to coax the dog into positions, such as down. Lures aren’t the best for getting a dog to offer behaviors, but they’re about the only way to teach a hyper, young pup to lie down besides following him for several hours waiting for him to tire. With Cooper on the chair, I just showed him a piece of liver and then lowered it so that it was slightly below the edge, where he’d have to croon his neck to get at it. This is how the lure works: Show him the food, move the food in the direction you want him to go, and hope he follows with his body.
3. SUCCESSIVE APPROXIMATION: It’s unlikely that a dog is going to follow that treat all the way into a good down position on the first try. So we use successive approximation to show him that he’s more or less headed in the right direction with his behavior. The first time I tried this with Cooper, he followed the treat until he was hunched over a bit and then backed off. So rather than try to force him or keep coaxing him, I gave him the quick verbal bridge—”good”—at his low-point and gave him the treat. The next time I require another fraction of an inch of dip before giving him the bridge and the reward. This is why behaviorists call it successive approximation: You give the full reward for the incomplete-but-improving behavior. When you hear trainers talk about “shaping” behaviors, this is what they mean, specifically. By about the fifth try, Cooper realized he’d be able to get at that liver best if he just flopped down on his belly. So that’s what he did. Once he’s giving you that behavior, it’s just a matter of getting it down to an automatic response when he sees a treat while sitting on a chair, then adding the cue: down.
In order to get Cooper to offer this behavior on his dog bed, I had to slowly raise the criteria by placing him on different chairs, then objects like tables that are similar to chairs, then a stair step, and finally on his dog bed. The reason you can’t just expect him to know it on the ground is that teaching a behavior like this on a chair will most likely make the chair a more important cue for the behavior than your voice. Remember, dogs are not primarily verbal communicators by nature. Whenever you think your dog is disobeying you, ask first: Is it his fault for not understanding or am I not communicating properly?
This article originally appeared on Outside K9, the former dog blog of Outside magazine, on May 20, 2009.