We usually like to start with a nice “sit” before attempting “down” so make sure your pup or dog can “sit” for at least a couple of seconds. No need to add a “stay”, you just want to reinforce for keeping his or her tushy on the ground.
The first couple attempts, do not say anything other than “yes” for trying. What can happen is you say “down, down, down, down” as your dog stares at you. Then, “down” does not mean what you want it to mean so make sure you can get your dog into position before attaching the human word to the behavior.
We like to use a bigger treat for this as to not encourage any chewing on fingertips as you are guiding your pup into position. From a “sit”, let your dog nibble on the treat a little. Once he or she is engaged in the treat, SLOWLY start to move your hand towards the floor. The goal is as your dog nibbles, his head lowers, then elbows, then shoulders and eventually belly flat on the ground. If your dog pops into a standing position during every attempt, you are moving your hand too fast. It’s REALLY slow and the treat is glued to your dog’s nose like a magnet. When your dog’s belly is getting closer to the ground, some dogs do well if you SLOWLY move the treat forward so his paws slide forward but some dogs do best if you lower at an angle towards their chest so he or she flops back into it. Try it both ways as it truly matters how your dog’s body moves. Remember to “yes” every step along the way, head lowering, shoulders, etc. so your dog knows he or she is on the right track. If you do not give any feedback and your pup does not get it, frustration can easily settle in then the game is no longer fun.
Only after your dog actually lies down 3-4 times are you ready for the next step…adding the word “down” to your training. Practice in a non-distracting setting to help your dog learn the “down” cue. Give the cue “down” while standing tall and the hand signal RIGHT arm perpendicular to the floor, motioning down towards your core. Count to two in your head. Then take the treat from your LEFT hand and place it in your RIGHT hand, without saying “down” again, lure all the way to the floor like you did at the beginning. “Yes” and treat once there and “yes” and treat a couple more times to reward for maintaining the position.
By keeping your treats in your left hand while communicating, you avoid overshadowing your words with the power of the treat. When you give yourself that two second pause between verbal cue “down” and the actual behavior, you allow your dog the opportunity to think about what you are asking. Once you repeat hand/verbal cue, pause, hand-switch, lure three times you are ready for the next step.
The last step is give the cue “down” and the hand signal, count to two THEN without the treat in your right go all the way to the floor. This is called phasing out the lure. However, once your dog is down there, be ready to treat very quickly for going there without a food prompt.
Follow these instruction carefully and be sure to keep the treat out of your hand while communicating and your dog will more readily lay down without you needing to always have food to guide him or her. Asking a dog to lay “down” on a sidewalk, in front of other dogs or around other distractions adds varying layers of difficulty your dog might not be ready for until you get extensive practice at home.