After your Chihuahua is sitting still and relaxed for more than a second, you should start to teach him how to lay down. Not only is it a more comfy position for your Chihuahua for an extended period of time, but your Chihuahua is also less likely to pop out of position without being released. When lying down, a dog is generally at a lower arousal level and more relaxed. Of course, not all small dogs appreciate this position, as it makes an already tiny breed feel a bit more vulnerable, so only use it in safe, relaxed settings.
There’s two ways on how to teach a Chihuahua to lay down. You can either lure or shape the down position. To start shaping, begin in the most boring room of the home, making sure there are minimal distractions for your Chihuahua, such as toys or other people to pester. This can be a home office, laundry room, or even the bathroom. Go in with your clicker and treats in a pocket, shut the door, and sit down. Read a magazine, pass the time while you ignore the dog. Eventually, the bored dog will lie down, so click and treat!
If your Chihuahua stays in the down position for several seconds, try to deliver the food while the dog is in the down position. If your Chihuahua jumps up when you click, go back to the boring stuff. Eventually she’ll stop staring at you, barking, or otherwise trying to get your attention, and lay down. Capture this one with your click, too, and don’t forget to follow up with your treat! After the first few repetitions, your Chihuahua will be on to your game and will start to recycle those downs as fast as you can click.
An alternate method is to lure the dog into position. This isn’t as straightforward as you might think, since your Chihuahua is already so close to the ground! Begin by placing a high-value treat in your closed hand. Cue your Chihuahua to sit, and then drop the hand to the floor directly in front of his front feet.
As your Chihuahua’s nose approaches the floor to follow, pull the hand toward you on the floor. It should be an L-shaped motion from the dog’s face to the floor a few feet in front of him. Think of your hand and the dog’s nose as two magnets. If you go too fast, you will break the bond, but if you go at just the right speed the hand magnet will pull the nose magnet along with it. Click and treat as your Chihuahua’s chest touches the floor, and then repeat the exercise.
As the dog starts to gain confidence in the position, don’t forget you must fade out that hand lure or it will become part of the cue. One way is to lure the motion, then quickly move your hand behind your back and click your Chihuahua for staying in position as you take your hand away.
A second lure method that is often preferred for tiny dogs is to place them on a low piece of furniture such as a bench or ottoman, a sturdy cardboard box, or a low step. Lure the dog by dropping your hand below the edge of the structure your Chihuahua is standing on, and he will have to fold up those tiny legs to reach the tidbit, and his belly will reach the support. Click and treat as soon as his belly touches the bottom! Practice on the furniture until the dog is recycling the down, and then move it onto the floor.
Another quick and easy way to jump start the down is the tunnel method. Sit on the floor, with your feet flat and knees up. Make a little tunnel under your legs and lure your Chihuahua’s front end under your propped up knees, which must be low enough to make the dog crouch to get the treat. If the dog is on your right side, use your left hand to pull him through the tunnel from right to left. Lure further and further under your legs, until your Chihuahua must be all the way down to reach the prize! Click and treat each of the approximations, and don’t forget to jackpot when he is down.
Remember, never force your Chihuahua to down by pushing down on his back, pulling his feet out from under him, or looming over him. He will become startled and refuse to down, potentially becoming frightened or aggressive in the process. Do not tell the dog to down or stay in position yet, just click, treat, and immediately move on to the next repetition. Once your Chihuahua is recycling or “throwing” the behavior at you to make you click, you can delay the click and treat for a few seconds at a time as you begin to start your duration for the down and stay.
Once your Chihuahua is quickly recycling through the downs, add your label to the behavior, just as you did with the sit exercise. First label the behavior “Down” as your Chihuahua moves into position for thirty repetitions. Then for the next thirty repetitions begin to say the cue to the dog a millisecond before he moves into position, and for the final set, back it up until the cue is coming before the behavior. After this stage, do not click and treat if you haven’t asked for the behavior. Do not tell your Chihuahua to stay, just delay the release a little longer for each repetition as you start to build your stay duration.
You can also introduce a hand signal for the down position if desired. Give your hand signal, usually a sweeping motion of the hand toward the floor, just before you say the previously conditioned verbal cue. Then hold, click and treat as above. Your Chihuahua will quickly associate the hand signal with the verbal cue, and start to move on presentation of the hand signal. Drop your verbal cue, and then hold, click and treat with a jackpot of high value treats! Never use the verbal and hand cues together, you will cause confusion and neither one will give you good stimulus control.
Just as with training your Chihuahua to sit and stay, you will teach your Chihuahua that he should hold the down position until released. Once the dog is committed to the position, staying in position for five to ten seconds or even more while staying relaxed and calm, you will make eye contact, say your release cue “OK!” in a happy, relaxed tone, then click and treat. Very quickly, your Chihuahua will realize this is just like the sit release and will start to listen for the cue to move out of position.
Once your Chihuahua is responding to the verbal release cue, you can start to drop out use of the clicker as a marker. Don’t forget to continue to follow up each release with reinforcement for the time being. If you drop out the reinforcement, the behavior will extinguish altogether. As with the sit, you will begin to increase the duration the dog stays down, bringing it up to holding for two to three minutes at a time.
So now you have the down on cue, your Chihuahua is comfortably holding position for several minutes until released, and you are ready to take it out of the classroom. Begin to practice the downs and releases in new places every session, and don’t forget to change your position, too. You don’t want to get stuck with a dog that can only down when you are face-to-face. Practice while sitting, standing, facing away from the dog, and while you are moving around the room.
Once your Chihuahua is fluent in the down position you will begin to mix in other kinds of reinforcers. Remember that though you will often use high-value tidbits in the training, you will not always have a clicker and treats with you. You need to become adept at finding ways to reinforce good behavior with things other than food.