Way back when
When I first took a dog to obedience class, back in the Pleistocene, we were given six weeks to teach our dog to obey five basic commands: sit, down, stay, heel, and come. The behaviors were a given; these are the things any well-trained, obedient dog should be able to do. The important thing was not just doing the behavior, but Obeying the Command No Matter What.
The long down
Perhaps the most important of all the behaviors, and the most difficult, was the long down. Could your dog lie down and stay down while you walked away? Could he stay there until you came back and told him he could get up? What if his mortal enemy was next to him, or the instructor walked behind him, or some other dog got up and came over to him? Never mind! He'd better not budge! If he moved, we screamed, "No! Down!" and rushed back and jerked him into position again.
We were encouraged to "proof" our dogs by making them do long sits and downs in distracting areas. People sometimes took this to extremes. Once at a dog show I saw a woman "down" her dachshund two feet from the entrance to a building, with crowds of people going in and out. The owner, her back to the dog, was chatting with friends down the path a few yards, when a man walked past the dog, not seeing him at all, and almost stepped on his paw. The little dog, still in the down position, shrank back a few inches. "Your dog moved," someone said. "NO! Down!" she screamed, running back to him and jerking him forward to the pavement's edge again.
Other parts of the old training are fading, but somehow the custom of teaching sit-stay and down-stay for longer and longer durations and in the face of bigger and bigger distractions, remains. And I hate it.
A time and a place to settle
I have no objection to teaching dogs to wait patiently when there's nothing else going on—the "settle" exercise. One common and sensible way to do this is to provide the dog with a physical cue, a blanket or mat, that, when spread, means "Relax here; we're going to do nothing for a while." A "while" can be anything from a few minutes to the length of a ClickerExpo lecture; dogs accept the concept easily. Nobody is making a test out of it; nobody is staying "and you have to stay in the same position without moving, and you have to stay motionless No Matter What." The settle exercise is a way of calming the dog down; it is NOT a tool for proofing against distractability.
Alternatives to the long down
Why not teach the skill of resistance to distractions with a moving exercise, such as walking beside you, or coming when called? For one thing, it's much easier for a dog to learn what he got clicked for when he's moving; it's as if his muscles know what was happening at the time. If he's sitting or lying down motionless and hears a click, how can he tell what it's for? The number of seconds or minutes he's been there? How can he judge that? The fact that near him someone was flapping a towel and he did nothing? Doing nothing is a difficult behavior to distinguish.
Secondly, I think the long down as it is generally practiced is an artificially difficult exercise in itself, because the dog is so vulnerable. The dog has been asked to lie down in an exposed situation, maybe outdoors. The owner is further and further away. If it's in a training class, there are other strange dogs around. The dog has no permission to flee or defend itself if things do go wrong; and no one knows better than the dog that things could go wrong.
Look at the facial expressions of dogs learning the down-stay in classes, and especially those being put in down-stays in hallways and parking lots and other public spaces. They are not just a little stressed; they're really worried. And they should be! Now on top of that we add deliberate disturbances, such as oblivious strange men with big feet, to teach them to resist "distractions?"
In the video/DVD BowWow Take II Virginia Broitman and Sheri Lippman show some excellent examples of teaching distraction resistance with a moving dog. Put out a bowl, upside down, with food under it. Then ask your dog to walk at your side past the bowl without looking at it. Can he do it? Click! Treat! How about a little closer? Could you heel him between two bowls and retain his attention? How about putting him in a sit and calling him to you through a maze of bowls? What if it were just one bowl but it was right side up and you could see the food? Start with a target stick and target him past the temptation, if necessary. The dog is getting clicked and treated for continuing to walk forward instead of turning toward the distraction. That, he can understand.
Distractions can always be increased. What if one of the temptations was a cat in a carrier? Or a rolling ball, first in the distance, then right across the dog's path? I think experiencing earning clicks and treats in the face of such temptations gives both the dog and the owner a clear sense of what it means to control oneself. It also seems to me that this kind of training or proofing for ignoring temptations and distractions might carry over more easily to the real world, for example when a squirrel runs by, if it were done in a moving exercise than in a still exercise.
Then, when the dog is already an ace at ignoring distractions, you could ask him to lie on his mat even at the vet's office, or to do a sit-stay while tied to a parking meter while you mail a letter. Now, downing amidst distractions should not be quite so terrifying. And if the dog is a little anxious, here's a comforting touch I've seen used in Europe: fold up his leash and ask him to lie down with his paws on the leash. Now he's not just in limbo, doing nothing, for an unknown length of time, he's Doing a Behavior he can get clicked for: touching a target until he hears a click. Besides, it's got to help his peace of mind. He KNOWS you won't forget to come back for the leash!
- Karen Pryor