Working with Shelter Dogs: Mowgli learns “down”

The most helpful cue we can teach a dog is probably “sit.” It’s pretty easy to teach, and it’s very handy. Another cue that should be in a dog training starter kit is one that lets the dog know you want them to lie down . . . also very helpful and pretty straight forward. l’ve taught lots of dogs to lie down on cue, starting with the three puppies my dad brought home when I was pretty much a puppy myself. I confess that when I was a kid I did it by telling the dog to “lie down” and giving them a little push on their rump to give them the general idea. The results were mixed. Some dogs got it quickly, others couldn’t imagine what the heck I wanted. If it took more than 2 or 3 attempts, things could get frustrating – sort of like a weird arm wrestling match in which the contestants are evenly matched and no progress is being made. The person doing the ‘training’ is left with the problem, “What do I try next?”

I’m glad to say that some years ago I learned a simpler method that has a key benefit – it’s the dog who’s left with the question, “What do I try next?” For a long time, it always worked. Simply ask the dog to sit, then show them a treat in your hand, close your hand and lower it to the ground in front of them. When the dog lowers its head to stay close to the treat, move the treat out – so your motion is the shape of an L When the dog has reached as far down as it can, it takes the next logical and lowers itself to the ground. Give your verbal and/or visual marker of success, (mine are “yes,” and thumbs up) and give them the reward. So simple, so effective. Belle, the second dog I worked with at the shelter, learned the cue “down” very quickly.

Belle demonstrates “down.”

The simple method worked every time – until Mowgli. I’ve said in an earlier post that I thought the shelter’s description of Mowgli as a big puppy simply meant that he was untrained. And he was untrained when I met him, but there’s something else about Mowgli that I now recognize as making him a big puppy: I don’t think he’s had much experience thinking things through.

To be clear, he’s not stupid – he picked up on how to have fun chasing a ball and invented his own version of fetch. Mowgli packs a lot of fun into every toss. It goes like this – chase the ball, grab the ball, run with it, toss your head and send it flying, chase after the ball, pounce on it, start running back to the thrower, but toss your head and let the ball fly. Repeat until you’re done with that round, then run back to the thrower and drop the ball on the fly so it rolls within their reach.

Mowlgi catches up to the ball
Mowgli pounces on the ball he just tossed

It really is something to watch. That, and the speed with which he picked up better greeting manners show just how smart Mowgli is. But he’s the first dog in my memory who did not figure out “down” in one easy session.

Instead, he got very frustrated. I didn’t necessarily think that was a bad thing. I often told my eighth grade students that frustration was a sign of learning. But faced with the real deal – Mowgli’s frustration – I wanted to be able to break the task into smaller pieces to help smooth the way. I hit the Internet and searched for how to teach a dog to lie down. I didn’t particularly like the best advice I found – let the dog figure it out. Just do the same thing over and over and they’ll get it. Ouch. In other words – don’t smooth the way. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But I also came across this advice – catch them in the act of doing what you want, and give them the marker of success. Of course! I’d used this before; it simply hadn’t occurred to me to apply it in this situation. (Evidently not all the problem solving is on the dog’s side.) All I had to do was catch Mowgli lying down, say “Yes!” and reward him with praise or a treat.

It wouldn’t be hard to “catch” Mowgli lying down. When he was ready for a break from the action, he headed for the well-worn groove under the park bench. A few digs here and there – sometimes a major rearrangement of dirt – and down he’d go. Perfect. Except . . .

. . . it was sort of hard to exactly catch the moment of lying down, what with Mowgli half under the bench.

But I did my best. Once we’d been through that a few times – me saying “yes” in a likely moment and Mowgli getting what I thought must seem like a free treat – I tried having him sit very close to the bench and giving him the cue to ‘lie down’ there. It worked. I gradually moved a little further away from the bench and suddenly, Mowlgi had it. In any location, the “sit” followed by “down” combo worked.

Of course, just like I didn’t take something I knew very well, catch them in the act, and generalize it to a new situation, it’s not a given that a dog who knows what “down” means in one situation will know it in another. And part of the situation is the trainer’s posture. Mowgli knew “down” when I was standing, but he might not know it if I were sitting in a chair or sitting on the ground. I was ready to move on to training from each posture, but Mowgli didn’t need it. Instead, we moved on to adding “wait” while he was lying down. We started with very short periods of time and distance and built as we went along. He transferred that cue as well.

Wait? Sure, no problem!

Not just “good dog,” but smart dog! Hats off to Mowgli.

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