Training your dog to perform a new behavior can be challenging. Depending on the dog and the behavior, it could take quite a bit of time. Different behaviors might require different techniques so it’s good to be prepared with a variety of training methods. The four primary methods for training a new behavior include luring, capturing, shaping, and targeting. Here we will describe each method and provide an example with teaching a dog to lay down. These methods can be used to train a wide variety of behaviors, including tricks!
Luring: Using a treat in your hand to entice your dog to follow it into the desired position. For down, start with your dog already in a sit. Hold the lure close to your dog’s nose so they know there is a reward, then move your hand down to the ground then away from the dog. Ideally, the dog follows the treat down, placing its elbows on the ground into a full laying position. You don’t want to move the lure so fast that they lose interest or so slow that they get frustrated. Each dog is different so pay attention to how your dog is reacting to maximize learning.
Capturing: Waiting for your dog to perform that behavior on their own, then clicking and treating. For example, with down, some dogs just do not like to lay down but at some point throughout the day they will. When they do, you should be ready with a click and a treat. After the first reward, the dog may continue to stare at you, trying to figure out how to get more treats. Wait patiently until they perform the behavior you want then click and treat again. It might take a while for the dog to catch on, but when they do you will be able to start pairing a cue and asking for that behavior.
Shaping: Shaping involves teaching a behavior in small increments. Some behaviors are too complex for animals to learn at once, or some dogs just need a little more encouragement and direction. For dogs who have a hard time understanding the down lure, shaping is a good method. For this you can use the lure in the same way, but reward for small victories. For example, if your dog makes any movements towards the floor or bends their elbows, click and treat. Then wait for them to crouch more and more until you’ve successfully taught them to lay down. This method helps keep your down positive if they get frustrated easily.
Targeting: This method is used a lot in zoos and aquariums. The first step is teaching your dog the ‘touch’ command, where they touch their nose to your palm. You can then transfer this behavior to a targeting stick or other tool. To train down using this method, you would try holding the target out and towards the floor, so you dog has to bend down or lay down to touch it. Then you click and treat.
Another important thing to remember when training new behaviors is the order in which to teach. Always start by training the behavior before introducing the cue. Dogs do not speak our language. They learn behaviors and gestures quicker than words. Start with getting your dog to perform that behavior reliably, then start introducing hand or verbal cues. Once your dog seems to understand the behavior, you can start verbally asking for it. Moving too fast will confuse and frustrate your dog.