Mark Vette – Internationally renowned Animal Behaviourist, Educator, Author and TV personality

Zen Down

Zen Down – The Most Powerful Command!   

This one simple command can TRANSFORM your pup or dog. It is unbelievably calming, and an absolute essential for ANY dog! It is so powerful, you cant underestimate it.

This command is ESSENTIAL if you are trying to:

  • Get your dog to focus and listen to you better
  • Teach your dog to settle down and relax
  • Work on hyperactive behaviours such as lead-pulling or jumping up
  • Work on fears, phobias or aggression
  • Work on any kind of reactivity e.g. chasing birds, cars or barking at people going past your property 
  • Teach your pup to stop nipping and jumping

I call it Zen Down, and it’s one of my signature training techniques.

There is not a single dog I train that I don’t recommend this command for. Not a single one! 


What is Zen Down?

It is an advanced lie-down position where your pup rolls onto its hip into a relaxed, calm position. Its more curled than the traditional Down position, in that both of your pups hind legs will be on the same side of its body.

This curled Zen Down position relaxes the dorsal muscles and activates the vagal nervous system, which induces a state of calm in your pup or dog.

Its known as embodied cognition in humans, where your body posture communicates your state to the brain, which in turn affects your attitude. This means you basically change the chemistry in your pups brain and their emotions with their body posture!

Once your pup has been trained to go into a Dog Zen Down you may find it does this automatically whenever you ask for a Down – which is fantastic and the exact outcome you want! 

What is the science behind it?

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It travels from the brain all the way down to the distal large intestine. It regulates the heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, digestion, and everything in between. It even plays a role in hearing, vision, and mental functioning (among other things).

Activating the Vagus Nerve activates the ‘rest and digest’ system (also called the para-sympathetic nervous system), and deactivates the flight or flight response (called the sympathetic nervous system).

This allows for full body relaxation to take place, and when a dog is relaxed, they are able to focus and learn. When you are in a stressed fight or flight state, such as you would be if you were being chased by a predator, it is very hard to focus and pay attention to someone trying to teach you something, right? 

When a dog goes into the Zen Down position (a curled down with both legs on the same side of the body), this relaxes the dorsal muscles which run down the middle of your dogs  back, which in term activates the vagus nervous system, allowing your dog to relax and enter a state of calm.

Why is it so important?

When your dog is calm, they are able to focus on you and learn. This means they’re in a state where, yes, they can learn new commands. But it also means they can learn not to be aggressive, learn not to react to certain things, learn not to be so afraid, learn how to be social and so much more.

So – now you know why this is such an important command. Let’s get on to how to teach your dog to do it!

First, you need to teach your dog the classic Down position.

How to teach Down

Hand signal: A downward movement of your hand with a downward pointed finger

  • Start with your pup in a Sit position
  • With a food lure in your hand make the down hand signal, then move the food lure in a motion down your pups chest line (about 5 centimetres out from your pups chest) then along the floor in front of it in a right angle. Dont move the food any further than the distance your pups legs will go when its lying down – if its too far your pup will stand up, if its too short your pup wont go into a down.
  • Do this slowly so that as your pup follows the food lure closely with its nose, it goes into a lying down position
  • As soon as your pups chest hits the ground, click then give a food reward
  • Throw the food reward between your pups front legs so that they dont have to stand back up to get it from you
  • To start they wont stay down long, thats ok – train the down behaviour first, then work on extending it
  • If your pup does not follow the food lure and wont go down, put a little pressure between its shoulder blades. Push gently as you move the lure into the exact Down position – one pup length plus 5 cm. Encourage them down, not too much pressure and not too little. When they are down, release your pressure immediately. Avoid doing this if you can and don’t do too much as touching their body can inhibit training – only do it if you need to
  • Start non-verbal, but once they get the idea introduce the Down command
  • Once they are reliably going into a Down, start extending the time they are down for by extending the time you wait until you click and reward them – expect and reward longer and longer time spent down. This will take place over a number of training sessions
  • Some breeds are better designed for this than others.  Long body dog breeds like dachshunds, and very short body dogs like bull terriers,  French bulldogs and English bulldogs, as well as greyhounds with their unusually shaped bodies and some general terriers, can be a bit resistant to this position. You can’t pressure them into it, you have to lure them into it. It might be a bit slower to get it, but make sure you persist as it’s an important command for management of your pup

When you finish a session, clap your hands and say Ok! to signal to your pup training is finished.  You might finish with a bit of play to further your bond and reward your pup.

How to teach Zen Down

Hand signal: Use the normal down vertically, then finish with the bottom of a L shaped gesture in direction you want his legs to go.

  • Start your pup in a Down position
  • With a food lure in your hand, work your hand from in front of your pups nose to its side so that as your pups nose follows the lure, it head curls over its front legs and flips over slightly onto its hip
  • Click and reward as soon as your pup rolls onto its hip, dropping the food reward between your pups front legs to encourage it to remain down and relaxed
  • Continue to click and reward your pup while it remains in Dog Zen Down. Encourage the extension of this position by clicking and rewarding your pup with food thrown between its paws on the ground at regular intervals
  • Delivering food to the ground like this encourages your pup to stay down longer because it doesnt release your pup from the command
  • You can also smear bits of food onto the ground so it takes longer for it to eat and keeps it in the position longer
  • If your pup doesnt seem to get it, use a finger to gently push the lower part of your pups side to encourage its back legs to flip over so that its lying semi sideways (lower legs are laying on their side, but upper legs may still be lying straight). Take care as some pups are touch sensitive and push back – dont force them.  Touching can inhibit training so only do this if you need to. 

Struggling?

If you’re struggling to encourage your pup to go into a Down or Zen Down position, here are a couple of tips:

  • Review the video below
  • Ensure you are moving your food lure in the right way
  • Some people find it easier to have their small pup up on a table
  • If your pup has already been introduced the clip station / lead, having your pup on a clip station can help them move into the down position as they can’t keep walking forward towards the treat

Check out this video to learn how to teach the incredibly powerful Zen Down command!

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