Next to teaching your dog to come when you call, I will venture out on a limb and suggest that teaching them to stop and down randomly (where they are) is the second most important skill that you can teach your dog. Here's why:
I've always taught this skill as an important part of obedience with my dogs over the years. The other day, I was able to experience the full weight of that decision with my young dog, Ned. We were walking off-leash on a property that I've walked on for almost 2 decades with my dogs. Suddenly, I watched Ned disappear through the fence. I was shocked, to say the least. I had no idea there was an opening large enough for him to fit through. No other dog had ever found one before either. There is a busy road with an 80 KM speed limit on the other side of the fence. When I saw him going, I immediately called him and as I've taught him to do, he tried to get to me as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this meant he was going forward rather than retracing his steps back through the fence. He was trying to get to me, but was running along the fence on the opposite side of it. As he ran, I was frantically looking for a way to get him back across to me. Luckily, he was hugging the fence trying to find a way in.
We were both coming up empty, so to stop his motion beside the busy road, I used my random down command. He dropped and remained down until I could get to the opening and direct him back through.
In that instant, all of the training I've done with this young dog culminated into a situation that very well could have saved his life. He was in definite danger beside the busy road and had he continued to run looking for an opening to get to me, this story could easily have ended differently. Stopping his motion and leaving him in a reliable down could have very well saved his life.
Once Ned was safely back on the right side of the fence, he continued on sniffing grass and love life. I had a minor meltdown while recovering and thanking the universe that all worked out. I vowed right then that the random down would always remain high on my priority list of skills to teach a young dog.
There have been plenty of other times that I've used my random down cue, but most are far less dramatic. Situations like wildlife on the property, I can down my dogs until the 'intruder' is gone. If my dogs are running off leash and they've gotten too far, I'll down them which gives me time to catch up. There are many applications for using a random down cue.
To Teach the Random Down:
1 - Teach your dog to follow a food lure into the down position. Reward well
2 - Add a verbal cue after your dog is proficient at following the lure. Time it so that your verbal cue precedes your lure by about a second ("Down", pause, then lure)
3 - Remove the food lure from your signal hand - continue to signal without food making sure your signal looks the same as it did when you held food (you can still reward the dog for success, just no longer lure)
4 - Once your dog is starting to lie down on the verbal cue alone, you can begin to drop the signal entirely
5 - Start to work small distances away (start with a few inches or a foot and grow it as your dog is successful)
6 - Increase the distance until your dog can successfully down from about 20 feet
7 - Once they understand how to lie down from a bit of a distance, start to randomize things. When they aren't paying attention, call their name and ask for the "down". If they are successful, run to them with a great reward. Keep working this skill in a variety of safe locations and reinforce well. If you have a dog who is toy motivated, you can throw a toy to them as a reward as well. Keep it light and fun and reinforce well for good choices.
8 - Start to add distractions, increasing the severity as your dog gains confidence through success.
You never know what might run across your dog's path. It's worth your while to have a couple of emergency skills in your back pocket!
As always, Happy Training!
Hi! I'm Shannon and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members.