Golden Retriever Training: Teaching the “Down” Skill


The “down skill is one of the three basic positions we teach our dogs and is normally taught after the “sit” skill and before stand. The down command is also a handy segway to training other skills, such as settle or a down-stay. 

The “down” skill teaches your Golden Retriever to lay down when asked, and it builds a foundation for teaching other skills such as settle, place and stand. The “down” skill can also help encourage a Golden Retriever to calm down and is helpful during grooming and examinations.  

Like the “sit” skill taught in the previous article, the down is often a default or natural position for dogs. Some dogs will naturally go into the down position more quickly than sit; others prefer to sit, while others dogs will do both as their defaults.

Most dogs will find it much easier to learn going into a down position from a sitting position rather than standing. As such, teaching a dog to “sit” should be taught first.

For a refresher on teaching sit or learning the skill, take a few minutes to read this article: Golden Retriever Training: Teaching The “Sit” Skill.

The Training Session

So, let’s start training. 

Down is often more tricky for dogs to learn and for us, the trainer, to teach. So be prepared that this skill may take a bit more time and patience than the previous skills. But, once the dog gets it, each repetition comes faster and easier. The first rep or two are the most difficult. 

You should begin a session by reviewing a few repetitions of a skill that your Golden Retriever knows well. This is optional, but if you start the session with a few wins, it helps build confidence and reinforces previously learned concepts. Practice makes perfect.

At this point, you can start mixing and matching some skills to start the training sessions, and you don’t need to reward each time. 

For example, I might ask the dog to sit, drop the treat on the floor in front of him while saying “leave it,” and then cue “look at me” and then reward. 

So, in that example, I was not providing the dog a treat on each command. The dog doesn’t get a reward on “sit” or “leave it” but only after the “look at me” cue. By mixing up the skills, you’re reinforcing the previous session while keeping your dog challenged and guessing. 

It is also how we start weaning the dog off treats for every command. In that example, the dog got a treat only after the third skill was performed. 

A few successful repetitions are all that is needed in review. However, if you find that your dog is struggling with a previous concept, then it’s OK to spend the entire session reviewing that skill.

Regressions are part of the learning process so expect them. 

The Basic Progression: The Down Skill

  1. Hold a treat in your lure hand. 
  2. Ask your dog to “sit,” and make sure it’s in the sit position before moving to step 3. 
  3. Make sure your dog sees the treat and it’s very close to its nose. 
  4. Move the treat (lure) SLOWLY down from the dog’s nose and down towards the front paws. 
  5. Once your dog moves into the down position, you say “Yes” and reward. 

Add The Verbal Cue

We didn’t add the verbal cue in the initial first six steps for two reasons. 

First, because we want the dog to understand the concept first. Secondly, because we want to keep it as simple as possible, adding too much for a dog initially makes it more difficult. 

Once your dog understands what the “down” skill looks like and how to do it, we can add the verbal cue. Adding one additional variable at a time ensures the dog is not overwhelmed and progresses slowly but consistently. 

So, follow the steps outlined previously, but when performing step 4, you will:

  • While moving the treat down and towards the dog’s paws, say “down” (verbal cue) while initiating the movement, and once the dog is in the down position, say “yes” and reward the dog. 

Down from a Standing Position

When your Golden can reliably go into the down from the sitting position, you want to teach it from a standing position. Shoot for eight out of ten successful repetitions before advancing.

The stand position from a cue will be taught next lesson, but for now, just let your dog stand up by taking a few steps back and call it over if need be.

  • While your Golden is standing, move the treat down towards its front paws, say “down” (verbal cue), and once the dog is in the down position, say “yes” and reward the dog. 

Fade the Lure

When your dog can reliably do the “down with the verbal cue, and from a sitting and standing position, you can now fade the lure.

  • With no treat in the lure hand, repeat the process as before. Once your dog goes into the down position, say “yes” and reward the dog with your other hand or from a treat pouch behind your back.

The video below shows how to teach the down skill using the lure method. If you or your dog struggle with the lure method, trainer Ian Stone also offers some alternative methods you can use.

The five methods to teach down are as follows:

  1. The lure method.
  2. From a bow.
  3. Shape from the neck.
  4. Capturing a.ka. The “bathroom” down.
  5. Shape by bridging.

It would be best if you started with the lure method first. It generally is the most effective method. I have never had any issues teaching the down skill with any of my dogs using this method.

Proofing the Skill: Duration, Distance, and Distractions

Once your Golden has learned the essential down skill, it’s time to increase the difficulty. First, make sure your Golden can reliably do the “down” skill for at least eight successful repetitions out of ten before moving on to each subsequent progression. 

Proofing is asking your dog to do a particular skill in a new setting. The ultimate goal is for the dog to generalize the skills to any setting and do it anywhere and anytime we ask. 

Generalization takes a lot of time, so consistency and minor progressions are key. 

Duration 

For the duration progression, put your Golden in the newly taught down position. Count to one second, then “yes” and reward. With each successful rep, increase the time by a second.  

As the intervals get longer, make sure you begin to use the intermediary marker of “good.” Rember that “good” is telling the dog to hold the behavior until we provide the reward. It teaches your Golden to hold that position until you give the release command or reward. 

Distance  

Put your Golden in the down position, step back with one foot, pause a second, say “yes,” and then step back to your dog and feed the treat. 

Next, take two complete steps back, then progress to three, and so forth. Continue slowly, adding one step at a time only after each successful completion. 

Distractions 

Distractions are the most difficult and the last progression. Before advancing to distractions, make sure your Golden Retriever successfully performs 8/10 successful repetitions on each of duration and distance. 

Aim for a distance of 10 feet and a duration of 30 seconds. This is a reasonable milestone for your dog training. If your dog can do this, then move on to training the down skill with distractions. If not, continue practicing.

As with before, once your Golden can reliably reach the milestone of distance and duration in the backyard, then move on to a more challenging environment. 

You might slowly progress to the front yard, the sidewalk, the park, and so forth, repeating each progression in each new setting. Or, you might want to find ways to increase the distractions in the backyard. 

For example, you could jump around waving your dog’s favorite toy around, acting animated and goofy while your dog holds its position. Your dog should not leave a position until it’s told to do so if your dog has adequately generalized.

This type of distraction training works well if you do not have a backyard. It’s just a way of adding challenges by finding creative ways to add distractions. 

BAR held this down position from a distance of 15 feet and for almost a minute. Normally we’d be training this outside in distractions, but it was pouring rain that day.

Common Problems 

Down can be tricky for you and your Golden Retriever to learn and for you to get right. Most commonly, the dog will stand up rather than going into the down position. 

 If your dog stands up to get the treat, it usually means you either have the lure too high above the ground, you’re moving the lure back too quickly, or it is too far out in front of the dog.  

For any unsuccessful attempt, say “nope” calmly and casually, and don’t reward. Reset and try again. 

Make sure you are:

  • Moving the treat methodically and deliberately. Not too fast. 
  • Moving the treat down towards the paws and slightly outwards (you want the dog to stretch out to get the reward).
  • Make sure the treat is low to the ground. Often it’s too high up, so it entices the dog to stand rather than lay down.  

You can also try capturing if you or your Golden are struggling (refer to the previous video). As with the “sit” skill, try capturing when your dog is a bit tired after playing or exercise and do it in a quiet room with no distractions (like a bathroom). 

You’ll find your dog is relaxed in this situation and is more likely to lay down. Then you can quickly capture the behavior more easily.

The other common problem is that your dog stands up during duration and distances. If your dog stands up during the duration or distance progressions, it just means that the time is too long or you’re too far back. 

Just move back to a previous duration or distance that your dog can successfully do and work up to the next level more slowly. 

Next Steps

So, at this point, you should be comfortable using markers and becoming better at teaching using lures and hand signals. Your timing and training steps should be getting better as well.

Your dog should also now understand the concept of his markers and have learned “look at me,” “leave it,” the “leave it/look at me” combo, “sit,” and down.” If you stopped at this point, your dog would know more commands than most. But don’t stop. 

In the next lesson, we’ll be teaching the “stand.” The “stand” skill is essential because it will form the trio of skills taught in the next skill combo: the “sit/down/stand” combo. The stand skill can be tricky for dogs to learn. 

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