Teaching Mochi "Down" in 1 week, after failing miserably for 8 months
Everything that didn't work, what I learned from it, and how we figured it out together
I first tried teaching Mochi “Down” for two reasons: social pressure and my preconceptions of what my relationship with my dog should look like. At the time, I’d had Mochi for a couple months, and it felt like everyone I knew had already taught their dog how to lay down when asked and that teaching such a basic obedience command was something I should be able to do. Not the best reasons. I did have one positive motivation: training simple cues felt like something fun Mochi and I could do together as a team. It’s also why, when she couldn’t learn “Down,” it felt extra rough, like I’d failed us somehow.
Luckily, within those first few months, I quickly learned and understood that Mochi's timeline is different because she’s different. While many rescue dogs follow the 3-3-3 rule (see below) for how long they take to adapt to their new home, I learned that for fearful dogs, it’s best to throw the entire timeline out the window and move at your dog’s pace. That’s not okay, that’s normal, and the best thing you can do for your dog.
Since our top goal at the time was to help her be less fearful and more confident, I decided that there'd be no point in teaching "Down" or any other cues — no "Turn" or "Paw" or "Touch" or "Rollover" — because those commands weren't able to help her or help me, in any way, yet. For many, many months, all Mochi understood was “Sit,” and that was fine by me.
As she got braver, more comfortable, and more confident over the next year, I’d try again to teach her “Down” to see how she’d react. This summer, there was a noticeable shift in her comfort level and how enthusiastic she was to train together, and you bet I took advantage of that. Ultimately, I tried four different methods since I adopted her, but no method worked — until last month, when something in my brain finally clicked, and I figured out how to teach Mochi in a way that's tailored to her. Here’s everything we tried and ultimately, what worked!
The "Traditional Lure"
Soon after adopting Mochi, I tried to teach her "Down" using the most common method, luring. Basically, you hold a treat on the floor in-between their paws and slowly drag the treat away. Allegedly many dogs will naturally lie down to pursue the treat. Once you can get your dog to lay down from luring, then you can start getting them to do it on cue. Mochi, the rebel, would never lie down. Instead, she’d just sit while hunching over, nose next to my hand, but body refusing to go flat. If I moved the treat too close or too far, she’d get up and reposition. She acted this way before and after she got more confident, so I knew this method had to go.
The "Crawl Under My Leg"
Cut to a few months later. We were still working on her confidence, but I wanted to give “Down” another shot. Being able to teach her something new (instead of putting her through fear rehab exercises) felt like it could be so much fun, and “Down” seemed like one of the easier options. So in January 2021, Andrew taught me a different technique for teaching “Down”: turning my leg into a bridge and luring Mochi to crawl underneath it.
I started doing this everyday with her in March, with the final goal being that she’d go into a crawl to get her treats, and I could name “Down” from there. We definitely had a lot of fun together trying this, and Mochi got braver and more comfortable pressing against my leg (win!) but she also learned how to be an incredible contortionist. By the end, she knew how to do the doggy limbo and pass underneath my leg without ever laying down, no matter low my leg was. I was impressed, we had fun, but we didn't make any progress on "Down."
The "Give up and Teach Something Else" 😂
In May and June, I switched gears and tried to teach Mochi "Touch" because it seemed even easier to teach and to learn, and we both needed some easy wins. A friend who also adopted a fearful dog said that teaching her pup "Touch" helped build her dog's confidence in interacting with the world (as did "Paw")! So I just went for it with little to no expectations. To my surprise, we practiced for over a month, and suddenly, Mochi knew “Touch” and was easily touching her nose to my hand whenever I asked. That gave us both, I think, a huge boost in confidence:
The "Bathroom Down"
On August 8, 2021, I watched this youtube video on 5 alternate methods of teaching your dog “Down” because yes, I wanted to try again! It covered a lot of the methods I tried already, but it also gave me a concrete way to teach “Down” through capturing — a method that I never considered an real option for Mochi.
Capturing is a concept our first dog trainer, Melissa, shared with me (if you live in Westchester County and want a trainer check Melissa out!). Basically, whenever your dog happens to do something you want, take advantage of the moment and say the verbal cue as it's happening, and eventually, your dog will associate your verbal cue with the action they’re taking. You can also start with just giving your dog a reward instead using any verbal cues.
But LOL wow I had zero ideas on how I could approach capturing with Mochi. She needs a lot of repetitions to understand something and I had little confidence that capturing could work for her. If I rewarded her for laying down without close repetition, I was certain that she would never understand why she was getting the reward. What I didn't comprehend until watching that Youtube video, however, is the lesson that I could shape my surroundings to make Mochi more likely to lay down over and over again.
💡 It was a real lightbulb moment for me!
Here's how the "Bathroom Down" works: I go into my bathroom with a book and some treats, close the door, and wait for Mochi to lay down on her own. Every time she does, I throw a treat for her, making sure to throw it far from her enough so that she has to get up to get it. Then, she can lay down again, I reward her again, and repeat.
After learning about this, I tried it with my partner Tom immediately and I had a hilariously terrible time:
Mochi had no idea why we were locking ourselves in the bathroom with her.
She wanted my treats SO BADLY and was trying to give me a ton of eye contact so I would reward her. Getting eye contact from Mochi is something else we work on and she's not super good at it, so rejecting her eye contact felt both bad for training and bad for my feels, since I felt like I was just rejecting her continuously.
She only laid down three times in over 30 minutes, and while I did reward her, there was no way I was going to keep staying in that bathroom.
Ultimately, Mochi's willpower to sit and wait for treats was not to be reckoned with, and my willpower to have the whole family confined to the bathroom waned quickly.
The "Mochi Method"
You may have run across the phrase “set your dog up for success” when learning about how to train your dog. It took me a long time to understand what this phrase really means, and how I can put it into practice. When I figured it out, I realized what it’s really saying is: Ask yourself "How do I make something easier for my dog to accomplish?" Broken down further, it really means: "How can I break down what I'm teaching into tiny steps that my dog can learn much more easily?"
A few days after that bathroom adventure, I pulled back a little and realized that the method was trying to do two things:
Create a confined space, so that after your dog sniffs everything, relaxing comes naturally, and so your dog doesn't leave during training to seek out something more interesting.
Give your dog a chance to naturally lay down, over and over, next to you.
That's when I realized:
I live in a small NYC apartment, so while Mochi could leave, she really can't go far. Mochi is also now at a place where she wants to be next to me whenever she isn't scared.
There's a natural spot in our lives where Mochi frequently lays down next to me: On our living room couch!
So what if instead of locking ourselves in the bathroom, we used the living room couch??? 🤯🤯🤯 After I sit on the couch, Mochi already likes to follow me up and then lay down next to me. If can hook her reward to that behavior, maybe she’ll have a much easier shot at understanding what’s happening!
Session 1: Rewarding for laying down on the couch
As soon as I thought of this, we tried it immediately.
I grabbed a handful of dehydrated chicken (one of her favorite high-value treats), put it into a small container, and went to the couch to watch TV.
The treats got her attention and she followed me up onto the couch.
When it became clear to Mochi that I wasn't going to just give her the treats, she laid down within a minute — much faster than when we tried in the bathroom!
As soon as she laid down, I said "GOOD!" I made sure not to say anything else. I wouldn't attempt to say the cue (“Down”) until many sessions later.
Right after saying "GOOD" I gave Mochi a treat. I didn't want Mochi to be jumping up and down from the couch for this part, so I positioned my hand behind her, requiring her to at least sit up to get her treat.
Repeat the above. A lot.
The results were stunning! Within about 10-15 minutes, Mochi realized that there was something she could do to get treats from me, even if she couldn't put together exactly what yet. We also got a good number of reps in, because using the couch meant that Mochi was used to me doing my own thing while we're there, so she defaults to laying down easily!
Session 2: More reps on the couch
Following the exact same steps as session 1, we did more practice rounds a day or two later. Sometimes, she'd lay down three times in a row and I'd reward her each time, and then she’ll sit there, waiting for more treats, and I’d have to ignore her for awhile to get us going again. Watching Mochi react at this stage felt like the most intriguing part of the process and I was constantly wondering: what is going through your brain little girl???
Session 3: Mochi figures out that laying down = treat
Soon after we sat down for session 3, Mochi figured it all out after just a few rounds: If she lays down, Mom will give her a treat, and oh gosh was I handing out treats like candy.
The final victorious pattern was: She lays down, I reward her, I look away for a second, she’s already laying back down, I reward her again. There were only seconds between sitting up and laying back down, and we must have done this 30 times in a row before I was just laughing and certain that we could to take her training to the next level.
This stage is called "offering" aka when dogs proactively doing behavior they know we want, to try and get a treat from us. I was SO HAPPY to get here, because it meant we had built the first step required in teaching your dog anything: some way to reliably get them to do the behavior you want. At this stage, I also tried naming the behavior by saying "Down" as she laid down each time, but after a couple times I decided that it was too early, so I stopped. We’ll come back to naming the “Down” later.
Session 4+5: Uh oh, Mochi thinks it only works on the couch 😂
I started session 4 by re-creating our pattern on the couch, but on the floor, to see if Mochi could understand that when she lays down here, she'll also get a treat. And wow, she surprised me in a hilarious way. 😂😂😂
Despite successfully laying down once or twice and getting a treat, she spent 99% of our time together trying to jump onto the couch and laying down there instead. I should've seen this coming, but still, I found the whole thing pretty charming and hilarious.
It's my job though to teach her that laying down will get her rewards, even if she isn’t on the couch, so I spent two sessions trying out different ways to encourage Mochi to stay on the floor with me. I tried:
Moving Mochi’s couch mat onto the floor. I sat directly in front of her spot on the couch, so it'd be harder (but not difficult) for her to jump there. I kept our orientation the same, meaning I sat on her left since we did our couch sessions that way. It didn’t work.
Moving away from the couch entirely. I went to an open spot on our floor between the living room and the kitchen, and yup, Mochi had no idea what we were doing and kept going back to the couch.
Blocking off access to the couch. (The winner!) I used a cardboard privacy screen I own to literally put a barrier around the couch. It made it impossible for her to even see the couch, much less jump on it. Then, I sat in front of the screen, on the floor. Within a couple of minutes, Mochi understood what to do and starting laying down on the floor to get her treats! 🎉
In dog training, I think the work we did here is called "generalizing" aka doing commands in multiple places so the dog doesn't associate it with only spot, or only one room, etc. These two sessions involved a lot of creative problem-solving on my part, and I found that to be super fun! I think Mochi had fun too.
Session 6: Adding a hand gesture so I can ask for a "Down"
I was getting ready to start naming "Down" at this point, but I knew from experience that like most dogs, Mochi picks up body language faster than she picks up verbal cues, so I decided to make up a hand gesture that would mean "Down."
I was inspired to think about hand gestures because of Melissa. She has two beautiful dogs. One of them, Sabbath, is deaf so she has all types of hand signals she uses to communicate with him. I got my first glimpse of what that looked like through a video she sent me, and I found it really beautiful. You can read more about the pros and cons of gestures vs. verbal cues here, but for me personally, I currently strive to have both available for Mochi, just in case.
For "Down," the gesture I picked was closing my hand into a fist and putting it on the floor:
You can watch me doing the gesture with Mochi here. It allows me to get down on her level, which I liked, but this also means I can't ask her for a “Down” while I'm standing. I'm fine with this and honestly, I didn't stress too much when picking a gesture! I can always change it later.
To teach this, I did the gesture every time she offered me a “Down.” We were already in the pattern of her offering, so it was up to me to add this on to help her make the association. As expected, Mochi understood the hand gesture pretty quickly! It only took 1, maybe 2 sessions, before she knew that gesture meant she should lay down, and I'd reward her by opening my fist and revealing a treat. I think she also learned the gesture quickly because unlike when I tried the "Traditional Lure," now Mochi is really used to laying down constantly for me, so following my fist to the floor evoked a different reaction from her!
This is huge! Now that she understands the gesture, it means that I’ve taught her how to “Down” on command! In six sessions!
Session 7+: Saying “Down”
By the time I successfully taught Mochi to "Down" based on my hand gesture, I felt like we had reached critical success. 🎉 In the history of Mochi's time with us, I've never been able to teach her something in a week. Heck, I'd never been able to teach her something within a month, though my trainer Andrew had the ability to sometimes teach her things during a single session 😂. So this was big for me, and I didn't really care about how long it would take to name the cue after that.
That said, it's been 2-3 weeks since she learned the gesture, and we practice the following for a few minutes every day, usually when I’m waiting for her meals to thaw:
I put a treat in my fist.
Without moving at all, I say "Down."
Half a second later, I do my gesture.
Mochi lays down. 🎉🐕🎉
I say "GOOD!" and then open my fist to give her a treat.
I also throw "Touch" in there to get her out of her “Down,” so we do "Touch" then "Down" over and over again, and now I can say my dog knows how to do touchdowns. 🥁😂
Mochi doesn’t understanding the verbal cue yet, but she’s getting really close. She does, however, have the hand gesture down (pun intended). These days, she’s so excited during training that she looks more like she’s pouncing into a “Down” position than laying down naturally. 😂
And that's my entire journey from trying a million things over many months, to honing “Down” into a process that I feel like I can now also use to teach other things! I've learned so much, including:
If instructions for teaching something don't work for Mochi, it doesn't mean I should throw it all away. There are really valuable lessons I can learn on why existing trainers recommend those methods, and I can try to adapt those why's to fit Mochi in new ways.
When I teach something to Mochi, I can cycle through her regular day-to-day behavior in my head, to see if something she already does can help set her up for success.
I love creative problem-solving with Mochi! It's like a fun puzzle we get to solve together, and when I think about it this way, it feels much less intimidating. When she doesn't understand something, it's no longer a frustrating setback, but a problem we get to solve together. In many ways, it's given me the confidence to know that I can teach her things and have fun doing it!
Some nerdy extras: What we had going for us that we didn't before
Credit where credit's due, I think a huge reason I could successfully teach Mochi "Down" was because of timing. I finally had enough knowledge to tailor how I teach Mochi and she had a few things going for her in August 2021:
Three months ago, we saw a big increase in Mochi's confidence indoors and how much she trusted us. Thunderstorms still scare her, but she isn't scared of being in the living room as much (we train there a lot so this is important!), and her daily stress levels were much lower. In the words of our trainer Andrew, Mochi was finally acting like a happy dog!
Mochi had her last heartworm treatment in early August, so there's a huge chance that all the heartworms in her body were dead! Her body is still working to disintegrate the dead worms so she still can't run around, but not have living parasites all up in her heart is probably having a really positive effect on how happy or excited she is day-to-day!
Heartworm treatment also requires that we don't let her exercise at all, with various levels of intensity or leniency based on what stage we are in treatment. Because of this, we also stopped going on walks. Instead, she gets short bathroom breaks where she doesn't walk further than a few feet, and then we come back home. For most dogs, this would probably feel incredibly frustrating. For Mochi, it's one of the best things that probably could've happened to her. She goes into flight mode really easily outdoors, which means high stress, and in a way, heartworm gave us a reason to work on indoor confidence separately from outdoor confidence.
To me, the potential effects of all three of these majors changes really add up. One of my favorite dog trainers to follow, Jay Jack, first taught me about the layered stress model, originally developed by Chad Mackin. It looks like this:
Please watch Jay's video if you want to learn more about it, but the fundamental idea is simple and intuitive: Just like humans, dogs have multiple types of things that stress them out, and if all those things happen everyday, the stress adds up. The more layers of stress you can remove, the less likely your dog will get over threshold and be triggered (for Mochi this means going into flight mode or trembling uncontrollably), because they're working from a less stressful place to begin with. I have no real way of knowing the exact quantity of stress her heartworm and outdoor time caused her, but they've basically been eliminated now, and she's less stressed on a daily basis because of it. If I was her, I’d be a lot happier and open to learning new things too!
As always, learning more about her and how to do right by her has been challenging, heartbreaking, rewarding, and inspiring, all at once, and I couldn’t love her more. If you’re struggling with teaching your pup “Down” or anything else, I hope me breaking down our process helped!
🐕 Mochi and 👩🏻 Sisi
Our journey on Instagram (and Substack!)
What else we’ve shared online since the last newsletter:
From the Pack: Dog beds that work well inside crates. I wanted to know what the best dog beds were for the inside of Mochi’s crate, and I wanted a quick and dirty way to share the answers so everyone could benefit. It ended up as a no-email Substack post!
A photo of Mochi’s super-serious-face these days when we’re in training. All the training we’ve been doing these days has been a good reminder that I shouldn’t take this for granted. She wasn’t always willing to focus on me this much or get this excited to spend time together.
Our Day 120 heartworm treatment update. TLDR? Mochi’s doing amazing and on her way to being fully healed up!
What Mochi’s original meal prep looks like. However, I’m now in the process of transitioning her to Sundays. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes. The ingredients are the highest quality I’ve seen, and it’s air-dried, so there isn’t a need for fillers (pea protein, tapioca starch, etc.) to make it into dry food that I can easily train with. If you want to try it with me, here’s our referral code, which gets you 50% off your first order. Using referral codes is the cheapest way I’ve found to be able to try Sundays. I waited for 6+ months after this company launched to try them, just to make sure other people got good results, and we finally pulled the trigger.