Have you ever seen a Service Dog at work out in public? Did you watch the dog lie down next to or underneath his seated owner for long periods of time, perhaps even hours? Did you watch the dog, as he resisted the urge to get up when other people or dogs walked by? Such high levels of training are always impressive to behold. Your dog may not be an aspiring Service Dog, but chances are your German Shepherd will need to know the 'down' command for many things.
'Down' has many practical purposes. If you would like to take your German Shepherd with you to outdoor restaurants and coffee shops, then your dog will need to know how to lie down calmly. If you would like for your dog to relax and to leave your house guests alone, then you could simply tell your dog to "down". If you would like to progress in the American Kennel Club's Obedience Trials, then your Shepherd will need to know the 'down' command. If you would like for your dog to become certified as a Canine Good Citizen or a Therapy Dog, then he will also need to know it. Not to mention all of the everyday situations, like car rides and family meals, when you need to be able to tell your German Shepherd "down" for his, or your own, convenience or safety.
In addition to being a practical command, 'down' is also a great command to teach to your German Shepherd to help him build his self-control and patience. 'Down' can be a great command to utilize when your dog is reacting to something in an inappropriate way and needs to be told what to do instead. Since 'down' is a submissive position and complying requires trust in you on your German Shepherd's part, it can be a great command to practice if respect is an issue, without having to be too confrontational toward your dog.
If your dog has ever shown any form of aggression or has ever given you any reason to believe he would bite, then do not attempt to teach this command on your own. Instead, seek out the help of a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist in your area, with experience in dealing with aggression. Because 'down' is a submissive position, an aggressive dog is more likely to bite if he is asked to get into this position. Of the three methods, the 'Leash Pressure' method is the most confrontational, so do not use that method with an aggressive dog or with a dog that is fearful of people.
Many dogs will resist the 'down' position the first time that you attempt to have them do it. If your dog resists the first time, then simply be patient and persistent. It may take your dog thirty minutes or more to lie down at first, do not force him, simply wait him out. As the training progresses, his resistance should quickly disappear when he discovers that the 'down' position will be rewarded and that he is safe with you while in that position. Many dogs will even begin to offer the 'down' position when not told to, in hopes of receiving a reward. If you wish to teach your dog to 'stay, you can utilize that type of enthusiasm by rewarding your dog with treats for staying in the down position for long periods of time. This will build a great foundation for teaching the 'stay' command later on.
To get started you will need lots of small, tasty treats. If your dog is very food motivated then you can use your dog's own dog food in place of the treats. If you are using the 'Treat Luring' method then the training will go faster if your dog already knows the 'sit' command. If you are using the 'Capture' method then you will also need a small Ziploc bag or treat pouch, to place your treats in to keep them with you. You will also need attentiveness and patience. If you are using the 'Leash Pressure' method, you will also need a six-foot leash, a collar that your dog cannot slip out of, and physical and mental perseverance. With all of the methods you will need a calm attitude, patience, and the willingness to communicate to your dog when you are proud of him for succeeding.