If so, you are not alone!
All too often we teach sit easily — it is a calming signal dogs tend to throw our way in the early stages. When our dog sits, we get very happy and excited, praising and rewarding the dog and – voila! – we have a sit command!
Sometimes we have to work a little harder at getting that sit by either luring or shaping it, but again once the dog complies we get very happy and excited, praising and rewarding the dog and – voila! – we have a sit command.
No matter how we get to it, we have established a basic skill that is used as a stepping-stone to so many other commands: sit/stay, sit/wait, sit/paw, sit/down.
The sit/down (and sit/paw) are the two combo-commands most commonly chained together by our dogs.
All too often folks start training the down command with the dog in a sit position and for some dogs it comes easily and for others it can take a while. Again no matter how we get there once the dog does his/her down, we get very happy and excited, praising and rewarding and soon we have a down command.
Here is where it gets tricky: if we only ask for a down from a sit position our dogs can begin to chain the two together. They begin to be conditioned that down always comes after sit and it is not long before they believe sit always comes before the down and voila — we have a dog who believes sit is just the beginning of down.
Okay — how do we break or avoid this? Easy.
Begin teaching the down cue from a standing position. The lure is the same: a stinky treat in a closed hand at the dog’s nose, slowly bring treat straight down to the floor (slowly enough so the dog’s nose follows the treat), wait for the dog to begin to lie down and then completely lie down — then get very happy and excited, praising and rewarding.
There are a few dogs who will not go all the way down — no problem, just pay for half a down, then three-quarters of a down, then nine-tenths of a down (you get the idea). You can also shape down from a standing position by simply rewarding it each time your dog does it (more on that in another blog). And if your dog already knows down from a sit, the same procedure applies as above. But you may not ask them for a down from a sit for a complete month (or more if they already think sit is just the beginning of down) because we need the dog who believes sit is just the beginning of down to let that notion extinguish from their behavior pattern.
Remember the biggest pitfall here is when we are not committed to the requested behavior. So often we are just happy the dog is stationary that we just take the down when in fact we asked for a sit. We have to commit to the behavior we have asked for.
There is however no need to punish — no need to vex. Just walk away if you ask for a sit and your dog slides into a down or ask the dog to stand and try again.
Remember we just want our dog to stop something and ask for a sit but when the dog slides into that down we have to get the dog back up into the sit or stand and try again—but do yourself and your dog a favor—remember to ask for the behavior they are most likely to offer reliably until you have fixed that sit-is-just-the-beginning-of-down issue. That puts fix for the lack of reliability back on us.
In the end so much of dog training is, “mean what you say, say what you mean, but don’t be mean about it.”