Within dog training, there are a few things that we at CCA heavily encourage every client to incorporate into their training plan, relaxation training is one of them
A common thing we hear from clients is that their dog struggles to settle down, especially if they are anywhere outside of their home environment, and even sometimes in their home! The art of relaxation doesn’t always come naturally to every dog - just as with people - and a little training in that area can really help your dog to understand what is expected of them in a given situation, thus taking some of the anxiety away from them. Dogs love clear instructions and boundaries to work within, when they are unsure, that is when we can see behavioral issues popping up
WHAT IS RELAXATION TRAINING?
Relaxation training is a way of teaching your dog to bring their energy levels back down and shift into genuine relaxation on cue. Think of it like meditation and breathwork for humans. It’s a systematic and methodical way of teaching your dog the benefits of maintaining calmness even in the face of increasing distractions. It is based on the Relaxation Protocol, by Dr Karen Overall, which you can read more about here. By its very nature, it is one of the less ‘sexy’ areas of training and it requires a lot of patience from the human (and the dog), but the behavioral benefits truly are far reaching.
We condition this behavior to be associated with a mat, bed, or blanket: this object becomes an environmental cue that prompts our pups to lay down, relax, and wait for reinforcement from you. This means, once you and your dog are proficient, you can whip out your mat of choice when needed (for example in the park or at an al fresco lunch) and provoke a ‘conditioned emotional response’ that indicates to your dog it's time to settle down. This mat is a sacred space, you should not touch your dog when they are on their mat or let anyone approach or reach for them: this is their space where their only job is to chill out.
WHEN IS RELAXATION TRAINING USEFUL?
Relaxation Training provides benefits in nearly every aspect of behavior, from young puppies learning to moderate their excitement, to older dogs with more complex behavioral challenges. It is relevant to so many different areas of training:
- Dogs with low frustration tolerance and impulse control - relaxation training teaches your dog that patience is rewarded
- High-energy dogs/breeds -you can use relaxation training helps moderate arousal in high-energy pups, to bring their energy levels back down after training or play
- Reactive dogs - relaxation training can help dogs relax around other dogs while working on counterconditioning to the presence of the other dog
- Trips to the vet or groomer - relaxation training can offer respite and some decompression time before and after high stress situations, which helps to lower spikes in stress hormones
- Public transport/travelling - relaxation training helps your pup to know what is expected of them on transportation, when the mat comes out, it’s time to lie down and chill!
- Outings and social events - much like with traveling, relaxation training helps dogs to understand what is expected of them and to remain calm even when faced with distractions
In all of these cases, we can use relaxation training to teach an alternative behavior that is not compatible with the undesirable one, e.g. your dog can’t be zooming around, barking, nipping, being stressed if they are calm and comfortably laying still on their mat
HOW TO TEACH RELAXATION TRAINING
Training relaxation takes patience, empathy and persistence. As with teaching all new behaviors, we need to break this up into stages to make sure our learner can succeed, however with relaxation training we really have to reign our own impatience, and pushiness in. The whole point of this is that your dog stays relaxed. If you push too far too fast you'll end up with a frustrated dog, and a useless fur-covered mat and a headache.
Level 1 - Get the Behavior
Start somewhere quiet. Place your mat of choice down and use a food lure to encourage your dog to lie down on it. Reward heavily, but calmly, as soon as they do this. Continue to deliver a calm, steady stream of treats between your dog’s paws (every 1-5 seconds). Keep this up for about 1-2 minutes, then give your release cue, “ok” and toss a treat away to let them know the game is over. Pick up the mat when not in use. Practice this step 5-10 times in different parts of the house until your dog automatically lays down when the mat comes out
For more information on how to use lures correctly check out our FREE Training Class: The Introduction To Modern Dog Training
Level 2 - Increase Duration
Warm up by working through the Level 1 steps. Once your dog is comfortable on their mat, you can start to slowly stretch the amount of time in between treats. To keep your dog engaged and calm, regularly throw in easy levels of duration (1-2 seconds), and occasionally give your dog 2-3 treats in quick succession. This will keep them focused and invested in the exercise.
Troubleshooting: My dog is not relaxing. They are twitching, shifting their weight around, and maybe even vocalizing
We don’t want to reinforce this behavior, we also want to retain our mats as a safe and relaxing space (remember that all important conditioned emotional response?). So if your dog is acting “twitchy” cue them to come off the mat, then ask them for an easy behavior - e.g. a sit. You can reinforce this by allowing them back onto their mat, but be sure to lower your criteria and make your duration more manageable for your learner
Level 3 - Disengagement & Relaxed Positioning
Try timing your reinforcements to encourage disengagement from treats, and observation of the environment. Just wait for your dog to look away from your treat hand, then deliver a treat between their paws. Build up your average time until your dog can comfortably wait for 10 seconds, and easily observe their environment without springing up. Be aware you do not have to wait for your dog to disengage every time, just work towards showing them that they don't have to stare at you to make the food happen! You can also selectively reinforce more “relaxed” behaviors such as deep breaths, hip shifts and head rests. Remember to adjust the criteria as needed - if your dog is suddenly distracted or aroused by other stimuli, go back to quick feeding. The aim - above everything else - is to keep them down and relaxed.
Level 4 - Sitting in Chair/Standing
Once you have repeated level 3 successfully 3-5 times, start to add in you being sat on a chair beside the mat. Remember this is raising the criteria for your learner, so you may need to increase your rate of reinforcement to keep your dog engaged and calm. Then you can add in standing up. Again, at first, treat your dog heavily for staying. Sit back down and repeat until you can easily stand up and change positions with dog noticing but remaining relaxed
Level 5 - Walking Around & Other Distractions
Lastly, you can add in walking around and other distractions. To add in movement start by taking one or two steps away from your dog, then returning to the mat to treat them. You can slowly add in more steps and greater distance. You can also add in some more distractions, and raise the difficulty of the environment. Here are some examples of ways to increase distractions:
Your dog remains calm and on the mat while...
- You jump up and down
- Do yoga moves
- Potter around in the kitchen cupboards
- Interact with their toys
- Leave the room
- Throw toys
- Drop food on the floor
- Make strange noises
Practicing in different places can also increase difficulty:
- In the urban environment
- At a restaurant
- In the park
- At a friends house
- In a store
- At the vet
Only select one new criteria at a time: ie. movement, other stimuli, etc. Remember not to throw them in at the deep end all at once! As with all new training, practice, practice practice. We promise you - it does work!
Teaching your dog to relax on cue really is an invaluable skill - this exercise is for every dog. We, at CCA, value teaching calm behaviors so highly we named our company the Calm Canine Academy! If you’d like to learn more about relaxation training above and beyond just Relaxation Training, check out our signature Calm Canine Masterclass