3 Reasons a Little Dog Might Not Lie Down on Cue

small rat terrier won't lie down and her belly is off the floor

Cricket almost lying down. Note the space under her chest.

When I first started training dogs, things that didn’t work were a mystery to me. Why couldn’t I reward Summer with chasing squirrels like everybody said I could? Why couldn’t I find that slot in the layout of her teeth where the experienced trainers said she should hold the dumbbell? And why, oh why, could I not teach Cricket to lie down on cue? At first, I saw everything through the lens of disobedience: my dogs were wrong when things didn’t work out. As I learned more about training, I realized these things were on me. There was something I was doing wrong. But often, I still couldn’t figure out what it was.

When your primary source of dog training information is the internet, you are at a disadvantage. (Ironic, eh, for a dog blogger to say that!) What I mean is that even the way you identify and describe a problem can lead would-be helpful people down the wrong path. When you are new, you don’t have the information to assess the problem to begin with.  So you can’t describe it well.

Back in 2007, when I was just starting to train, the situation was worse, because few people posted videos of their dogs. They were starting to, but YouTube was populated mostly with dog training videos by professionals. The idea that a newbie could post a video and get helpful critique from an expert was just getting off the ground.

That’s why I missed the two obvious reasons why Cricket didn’t want to lie down in training. Many more experienced people would have caught them.

Three Reasons a Dog Won’t Lie Down

Three reasons dogs (especially little ones) don’t want to lie down that have little to do with the mechanics of training are:

  1. Pain
  2. Discomfort with the surface
  3. Not feeling safe

So if you have a dog, young or old, who doesn’t want to lie down, first see a vet. #1 is the biggie. Seriously. Even young dogs can have painful joint conditions or other reasons why lying down is uncomfortable, especially in the “sphinx” position. And even when a pup will lie down, don’t overdo the “puppy pushups” thing. Let those little joints mature.

For Cricket it was Reasons #2 and #3

Luckily, Cricket didn’t have any pain associated with lying down. My vets and I never detected any. She regularly did a “sphinx down” at home. Here she is doing it.

Cricket lying down (on carpet)

And another.

Cricket lying down at my office, inviting me to play

So what was the problem in the first photo above where her chest and belly are hovering an inch above the floor?

Two words: hardwood floor.

That floor was slippery, and I kept her nails longer than I would nowadays. If she had lain all the way down on it, she would have had to scrabble to get up. Plus, she likely didn’t care for the feeling of the cool, smooth floor on her little bare belly. This seems to be pretty common in small dogs with short hair. Cricket hovered even higher over the chilly concrete floor in my den.

In the two photos directly above where she is lying down naturally, she is on carpet.

No Lying Down at the Obedience Club

But then when I took her to the obedience club, they had nice mats with good traction. So why was she still keeping her chest off the floor? Apparently, this is so common with little dogs that they even had a name for it in the obedience world: “the bridge.”

Here she is performing a perfect bridge. Can you guess why?

dogs in an obedience club lying down, except for a small terrier who isn't lying all the way down

Here’s a closeup.

closeup of rat terrier in "bridge" position instead of lying down

Cricket, as tough and willing as she was, was anxious. She didn’t feel safe enough to lie down in the club environment, surrounded by strangers and bigger dogs.

It saddens me now that I couldn’t see or respect her discomfort. If I did comprehend it somewhat, it just wasn’t important enough to me. I figured she’d get over her nervousness.

Look how brave she was! And look how much effort, how much muscle tension it took for her to maintain that bridge. She held it for a couple minutes at a time. I wish I had that core strength. She wasn’t going to lie all the way down, even though she was fond of the nice lab mix on her left. There were too many dogs, too much going on there, and she was little.

Another view of her at the dog club. It’s hard to detect body language in these old photos, but look at her ear set during this heeling exercise. Her ears were pulled back. Worried, and not a happy camper.

rat terrier at a dog obedience club heeling on leash

For contrast, here is Zani at the same obedience club. Zani is not without her anxieties, but they don’t involve people, dogs, or new places. All those things are lovely, as far as she is concerned. Look how relaxed she is! It’s probably safe to say that Cricket never looked as relaxed as Zani in her whole life. Cricket was a worry wart, like me.

black and rust colored hound mix lying down looking relaxed

I said at the beginning that this kind of problem—a little dog who wouldn’t lie down in some situations even though I trained and trained on it—was on me. But it wasn’t precisely a training problem. It was a problem of observation and empathy.

I didn’t know enough to realize that more and more attempted reps weren’t necessarily going to make Cricket feel better about lying down. I’m not saying it couldn’t have been trained. It could have, with a more skilled trainer. But to do it well would have meant looking at the situation holistically and addressing Cricket’s anxiety first.

And that’s where the empathy comes in. I can be a little compulsive, a bit Type A about certain things. And by god, it drove me nuts that I couldn’t do something as “simple” as get my dog to lie down in an obedience class. So I had a little war with myself. One voice saying, “Why on earth is this important? It doesn’t matter! You aren’t going to compete with her! And she doesn’t want to lie down, so why stay fixated on it?” But the other voice was saying, “But she’s ‘supposed’ to.”

The first voice, the one that was both sensible and empathetic, did finally win out. I stopped forcing the issue. I gave up my idea of competing in rally obedience with her. (Yes, I really did consider it. It’s a tribute to what a brave and willing little dog she was, not indicative of any kind of good sense on my part.) I did keep taking her to the club, even as a stand-in for Summer once as a demo agility dog, and she did great. She got more comfortable at the club and made dog and human friends.

Reason #4 Why a Dog Might Not Lie Down on Cue

The title of this post, with the “three reasons” bit, is a little tongue in cheek. It’s a bit of clickbait. Of course there are more than three reasons, but I think I picked three important ones. There’s another one in Cricket’s case, though. I reinforced that bridge! I mean, wouldn’t you? The adorable, serious little dog was trying so hard and was so tense. Her belly was almost on the floor, and it never……quite…..got there. Yeah, I gave her treats for that. Way too many treats. Matching law hell. Bad training practice, but a good human, nonetheless. I’m not a bit sorry.

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Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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12 Responses to 3 Reasons a Little Dog Might Not Lie Down on Cue

  1. Sue White says:

    Dear Eileen, thanks so much for the reminder that we need to look at things from our dog’s perspective. “I want to do what you want, but I’m afraid!” or “Hey, I just got rewarded for that! That is what you really want! So stop yelling at me!” I always learn (or relearn) practical tips from you and my dogs are the beneficiaries. Thanks!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Sue!

      • I forgot to add after “that is what you really want” the following words “even if you don’t think so!” How many times have we videoed an agility practice and yep! Dog went where our body language told her to go despite where we THOUGHT we were telling her to go! Your article reminds us to recognize that that is true in all of our interactions with our furry partners. We are so lucky that they put up with us.

  2. repoleon says:

    I love this post. I have only recently had small dogs and realized immediately that there are differences, especially in a group class with bigger dogs, as you say! To add to the challenges, my current little 12 lb. dog was a former stray with lots of fear issues. She is feisty and brave in many cases, but extremely suspicious and distrustful of all people, dogs, unfamiliar places. She will lay down occasionally at home, but never once in our Fearful Dog class. I have another Fearful (large breed) dog who I’ve been working with for years, so fortunately I have learned the importance of respecting fears and not pushing, but I did really feel that this behavior was particularly pronounced because of her size! She is also a dog that dives under bushes when hawks fly overhead….she is acutely aware of her vulnerabilities. A class in which she was the only small dog was a lot for her and there is no way she was laying down. She worked hard and did great, but firmly refused to lay down even once.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I’m so glad you realized what was going on with your small one! And as others have pointed it, it’s not limited to small dogs, but it sure seems prevalent with them. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Joyce Loebig says:

    “Matching law hell.” I love that phrase!

  4. Maria says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Eileen!

    It reminded me of my own small (and rescue) dog–Tom, a very fearful, but very brave Papillon. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but he was terrified to be in obedience class with so many big, strange dogs–he showed it by attacking them with little or no provocation (soon, all the big dogs in class were afraid of *him* and they cringed away from him, giving him the personal space he needed to feel safe). He didn’t do “the Bridge” but was never happy during the group downs, and only did them for me.

    He was *so* smart and *so* brave, that I persisted in my dreams of showing him in Obedience Competition far after I should have quit. He did all the exercises really well, except that he was terrified the whole time. I finally had the revelation during a practice match, when he went through all the exercises perfectly, until the final one–the recall–where he recalled perfectly, came to a nice front, and vomited all over my shoes. Then the pin dropped, that Tom really, really hated Obedience, and was only doing it to please me. I wish I’d had your wisdom and pulled him sooner. My fun wasn’t more important than my dog and his feelings. If I’d been a better trainer, I might have been able to get him to feel more comfortable in those surroundings, but hindsight is always 20/20.

    Like your Cricket, he was eventually more comfortable at the training club, and around dogs he was familiar with. I often used him as a demo dog when I taught pet classes–but only during orientation, when there were no strange dogs around! Tom was my crossover dog, and dived into clicker training with verve and gusto. He ruined me for subsequent dogs, because he’d routinely do more than 50% of the work of figuring out what I wanted and made me think I was a much better trainer than I actually was!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Aww, Tom sounds wonderful! And what a painful aha moment. So many of us can relate.

      These little dogs can be so terribly brave, and half the time we don’t even notice. I’m so glad you noticed. He sounds like the dog of a lifetime.

  5. Jerriific says:

    For the record, I did get a Rally Novice title on my dog with the same lying down issue. I just took the 10 point hit. Thanks for this, it reinforces my own observations with my small, short haired dog. And darn you Matching Law! 🤣

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Congrats! I considered doing that with Cricket! Pretty sure we could have. Not competing was the right decision for us, though.

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