When you think of dog training, do you picture a dog doing specific tricks like sit, down, or coming when called? While there are good reasons to teach specific positions or skills, it is equally important to think about what emotions we are encouraging. While emotional reactions can sometimes be out of ones control, it is amazing that we can also encourage specific emotions and increase how frequently they occur. Feeling or behaving in a calm or relaxed manner is something you can capture and encourage in your dog. Ask your self, which would you prefer: A dog that will sit every time you ask, but sits and barks, or sits while clearly agitated/anxious. Or a dog that can relax and be calm in a variety of settings quickly and consistently.
Broadly, the principal for teaching relaxation is to catch and reinforce signs of relaxation in your dog. What if you never see your dog relaxed because they are always anxious? You can still watch your dog to find what there average stress level is, and then reward anything even slightly more relaxed than average. Simple enough concept, but the challenge is that I cannot tell you to reward for a particular position – rather you need to learn enough about your dog to recognize calm.
Initially, you might assume a dog who is laying down is more relaxed than a dog who is standing up. Consider the photos below. Do the dogs laying down really look more relaxed than the dogs standing?
The first two photos show dogs laying down, but both have closed mouths, heads held high, tense bodies, more wide/rounded eyes, and attentive ears. Both dogs appear focused and ready to move, perhaps even worried about something. The second two photos show dogs standing. These dogs have relaxed and open mouths, less circular and more almond-shaped eyes, loose bodies, less viable muscular tension. While the standing dogs are also clearly looking at or attentive to something, I would argue that both dogs show signs that suggest they are more relaxed than either of the first two dogs.
So how do you know what to reinforce? Are you giving treats for open mouths or almond-shaped eyes? No necessarily. You are watching for signs that say in a particular context your dog seems more relaxed than usual. At times you may be focusing on a particular behavior like down or neutral ear position (rather than perked forward or pinned back), but never loose focus on the bigger picture of wanting calm.
One of the most common protocols used for encouraging calm behavior is teaching a dog to relax on a mat. It is particularly useful because not only are you working on cultivating relaxation, but you also are teaching a dog to do a down and stay on a portable rug or mat – so you have an ability to prompt a calm down at the vet’s office, an outdoor cafe, or when guests come to your home. Sara Reusche of Paws Abilities is an amazing trainer and behavior consultant. She has a great write-up with detailed instructions on teaching “Magic Mat” (read it here: magic mat.pdf) or check out her blog for more ideas here: https://paws4udogs.wordpress.com/
Finally, here are video examples on teaching mat (the first two) or settle without a mat (the last video):