Teaching the “Stubborn” Stockdog to Lie Down

By February 17, 2015July 5th, 2017No Comments

Mary Taggart Morrison

Many beginning trainers have difficulty getting their stockdog to lie down when they tell him to on the stock. Teaching a dog to stop by lying down is very simple providing you understand the way a dog thinks.

The lie down command is used in training to control the speed of a dog’s approach to the livestock, which in turn controls the speed the stock travels. Most people want their sheep or cattle moved at a relaxed pace for two important reasons. One is that the faster the stock moves, the more weight they run off. Ranchers see dollar signs when their animals are being run around by a dog because feed is so expensive. Another reason is that when animals run because they are panicked by a dog. They are in danger of hurting themselves. I’ve never seen a sheep or cow, that wasn’t blind, WALK headlong into a fence and break its neck, but I’ve seen this happen when they’re running, especially if they feel chased by a dog.

Another great value in the lie down command is that you can place your dog in any position and have him hold or turn stock when they need maneuvering as in turning them through a gate, blocking them from going down an aisle way, etc.

I’ve had folks say to me, “My dog is REALLY STUBBORN… He WON’T lie down, no matter what.” Often these same people are surprised at how they have accidentally taught their dog NOT to lie down, or to dread it so much that he’ll do anything to avoid it! Before labeling your dog as “stubborn,” look through these common (but faulty) training methods that can lead to a dog not properly taking the “lie down” command:

When teaching the “down” I like to see signs of recognition of what the command means before introducing corrections for not downing. This means that the dog does in fact lie down to the command at least some of the time and has a basic understanding of what you want him to do. The other day a family came to the place to ask about a problem they were having, with their Border Collie. They said “She won’t lie down when we tell her.” A “trainer” had advised them to get a big whip and just whip her to the ground while yelling, “down” in her face, until she cringed down on the ground. They expected this to teach her to lie down. Of course, what this insensible abuse did was to teach the dog to cut and run every time she heard the word “down.” Who wouldn’t?

A variation of this problem is to yell the command “down” at the dog while you are correcting it. The dog has no choice but to associate the correction, with the word “down” — in other words, the dog thinks that the word “down” IS a correction. Saying or yelling “down” while jerking on the dog’s collar is a great way to form this bad association.

What’s the solution? Only correct when you are SURE the dog knows what the command means and can demonstrate it repeatedly. Associate the command with petting and praise (which should, be given while the dog is in the act of lying down) say NOTHING as you correct the dog for not downing. As soon as the dog is down, praise him for being down. Go to the dog often to praise as well as correct and then he won’t dread you approaching him.

One common problem novice handlers have is that when they get excited, they raise their voices. This sounds bad no matter what your gender, but we ladies can really get a shrieking pitch that is enough to break glass! Speaking in a harsh or angry voice or demanding tone when giving the down command can cause a dog to think he’s in trouble when you give this command.

One solution is to switch to whistle commands. Another is to use a very conversational tone of voice to give the command — use the same tone you’d use to ask someone to pass the butter at the dinner table.
I recently attended a trial where the majority of dogs in Started were being screamed at by their handlers. Not only did this not work, but it was terribly embarrassing to watch. It’s bad enough seeing dogs out of control, but the handlers were too, yelling and chasing their dogs. This gives all stockdogs a black eye.
A harsh tone of voice is important to correct the dog, but NOT to give commands that you expect to be obeyed. If your dog runs out of control at a trial or anywhere, get a hold of him and haul him out of there! Yelling at a dog while he runs on only teaches him he can ignore you.

Some trainers teach people to yell at their dog to make the dog lie down. Anyone with children can tell you what’s wrong with this method — kids who are yelled at all the time quickly learn to “tune out” Mom and Dad. Dogs are no different. Save your harsh voice for those occasions when the dog truly does something wrong and he’ll pay close attention.

I don’t know who came up with this one but it surely ignores the way dog’s think. Dogs are not abstract thinkers — humans are. We can think like a dog but they can’t think like us. Hopefully that makes us smarter — we hope!

A dog really can’t understand that being jerked and dragged one minute is for not doing something that he didn’t really listen to that should have happened a minute before. Does this sound clear? If it doesn’t make sense to you, just think how it is for your dog!

Dogs can “get” that you are unhappy if they deliberately refuse to respond to a command. The part they don’t understand is the abstract part — that they are in trouble for something they didn’t do that didn’t take place back there somewhere. You can say to a child — “Son, don’t steal cookies from the cookie jar next week or you’ll be in trouble” and he’ll understand, providing he’s of an age that understands abstractions. Dogs, however, can’t understand the concept of something that hasn’t happened in the past or something that will happen in the distant future. That’s too abstract. What the dog DOES understand from this method, all too often, is that the “down” command is a prelude to being jerked and dragged somewhere for a reason he can’t understand.

I have re-trained more dogs that have become confused by this practice than for any other reason. Many of them will bark at you, keep running or just take off faster when they hear the “down” because they figure the next thing to happen will be an irate person bearing down on them, jerking and dragging.
The answer is to perfect the “down” command away from stock so the dog hits the dirt immediately wherever he is. Practice at distances with distractions and away from his usual terrain. When he begins to run on stock, set him up for success. I make a young dog initially run BIG wide circles around the stock for awhile — till I see that the dog has the “edge” gone and is a bit tired. Then I tell him to down. By then he’s often grateful for the chance to catch his breath. I make a big deal out of his obeying and really praise him!

If you are really sure the dog knows the command, but just chose to ignore you, you can use a throw item to correct him. The item should be thrown THE SECOND after the dog disobeys, no later. I like to use innocuous items such as a rolled and taped washcloth or a one foot piece of garden hose (minus any metal parts) that are easy to aim and can’t hurt the dog. Aim to hit directly behind him. The sound causes the dog to startle at it. DO NOT threaten the dog with the item! You want him to think God is punishing him!

Many beginning trainers use the “lie down” command as a safety valve for themselves so they can take a moment to think. The problem is that this ignores the dog’s natural instinct. A good dog will be more ready and willing to stop if you stop him in a place where it makes sense to stop. If the handler keeps downing the dog, allowing the sheep to escape, or defies the dogs inborn instinct to keep the herd grouped, the dog just may run on, ignoring the command.

A dog will more readily stop if you time your command when he’s at a point of balance, and feels in a position to manage and control the stock.

Some handlers will stop a dog too short or too long, often because they feel their dog won’t stop precisely where told. If they think the dog will take several seconds to stop, they’ll give the command too early, in a feeble attempt to counter the dog’s disobedience. Some breeds have a tendency to over-flank sheep or go too far before stopping. This causes the dog to never bring his stock in a nice straight line — instead the stock weaves back and forth across the field, using up energy and feed as they go too far, all the while making your dog work harder than he needs to.

A lot of novice handlers forget to watch their sheep. They concentrate so hard on their dog that they don’t notice a problem developing with the sheep until it’s already occurred. Then they try to “down” the dog rather than use a correction or try to get the stock back in control. Downing the dog is often a bad choice to try to control sheep when another action on the dog’s part would work better.

I use a harsh, growly voice to correct a dog, saying “No!” or “get out of that!” if the dog tries to grab or runs through the middle of the flock. But NEVER use “down” when you really mean “No!”. Use “down” only when you really need the dog to lie down.

The majority of dogs that are labeled “stubborn” really are not stubborn, they are confused or have learned the very things their trainer has (sometimes without knowing it) taught them to do! The first cowdog class I ever taught was all Australian Cattle Dogs. At the start of class every owner labeled their dog “hard-headed.” But by the end of the ten-week class, each owner told me that their dog was the smartest and easiest they’d ever owned! What had changed? The owners had! They had learned to communicate with their dog — in TERMS THE DOG COULD UNDERSTAND — and now the dog was responding beautifully!

This is a common-sense approach — don’t keep doing the same old things that haven’t worked. If your dog isn’t stopping and downing for you, and you’ve tried one method of doing it for a long time and it hasn’t worked, then try another way. Check carefully what you’ve been doing that could confuse the dog.

There are truly dogs that have been bred to have a very “hard” temperament and these dogs can get labeled “stubborn” if their owner treats them the way too many stockdogs get treated — that is, kept in a pen till the owner is ready to work something, and then he expects the dog to go out and do everything with no training or effort on the owner’s part. All stockdogs, but especially those bred with hard temperaments, need to have a close, loving bond with their master to give their best and want to obey. Spending time with a dog, teaching him things and getting petted and praised for doing something well is no secret, but a lot of stockdogs don’t get enough of this.

The harder the dog, the more he needs to spend quality time ALONE with his master — not running with a pack of dogs in the yard while his master watches. Many of us have several dogs who all need training, and we’re tempted to skimp on individual time with a young dog. But there simply is no substitute. When someone says to me “This dog is a real stinker — he’s so hard-headed!” I first take a good look at the dog’s relationship with his trainer. Often the trainer is not spending much time with the dog, or if he is, it’s not alone time. Also, the trainer is usually not being clear about right and wrong with the dog. The dog needs correction for wrong actions, but praise for right actions, and the contrast must be clear to him so he can make the best choices.

So what if you’ve got a dog that “downs” perfectly everywhere but on the stock? One thing I will sometimes do with a beginning dog and handler is simply use a double-handling method to ensure the dog DOES lie down on the stock. You’ve got to have very dog-broke stock to do this, but it works great. I put a long line on the dog and the handler gets to the opposite side of the sheep so his dog is now in a position to fetch the sheep, being on the opposite side of the flock from the handler. I’m simply there to hold the line and keep the dog from taking off out of the handler’s reach should the dog not down. The second person (in this case, me) says nothing to the dog, and does no correcting of the dog. You’re simply there to hold the leash, and soon the dog ignores you and concentrates on his owner and the sheep. That way, the handler can get to the dog to both praise and correct over this command, and the dog can’t run off around the sheep and avoid the command. Once the dog is stopping well, the handler practices letting the dog walk on up to the sheep and stop, walk on up and stop, as the handler gives ground and lets the sheep come toward him or her. Does this make a dog mechanical? No, if the second person remembers that it’s the handler’s show out there — only the handler gives commands, corrects or praises. The second person is strictly an anchor.

This article first appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine