Dogs are an integral part of our lives. Naturally, we must invest in training and teaching them our house rules from an early age so that we can mold them to our lifestyle. Failure to do so is a surefire invitation to a hyper dog that is anxious, excitable or aggressive. For example, a non-socialized dog might get super excited around guests. S/he may even lose bladder control at such times and pee or make a mess in front of your visitors. Some dogs are extremely nervous or shy around people or other dogs. Still others may show signs of aggression. All these unwanted behaviors can be avoided by teaching a dog to settle down and relax on cue. Let us study ways to train your dog to be calm in public and private.
Steps to teach your dog to settle on cue
It is important to teach your dog to settle down on a mat at home or outside. This is a useful command as it will allow you to take your pet to public places like restaurants or even on buses or trains. This command is especially useful when you have guests or while you are walking your dog at the park and stop to chat up with someone you know.
Step 1 – Gather things you need
For training your dog to relax on a mat on cue, you need some training treats, his mat or his bed and a quiet place for the training. It is important not to have any distractions around that could take your dog’s attention away from you. Always choose healthy treats for training purposes. (Take a look at my guide on homemade healthy dog treats for dog training.)
Set aside a time of at least 10-15 minutes for each session. It is best to keep the training session short and preferably after your pet has been exercised. This way, he is likely to be a bit tired and more inclined to listen to you. Some trainers insist on keeping dogs harnessed and leashed during this particular training of relaxing a dog. This way, you can keep your dog from running off elsewhere. You can sit on a chair for the duration of this training.
Step 2 – Place the mat on the floor
Allow your pet to sniff around and explore its surroundings. Now, place the mat/dog bed on the floor near your chair and place the treat on it. As soon as the treat is on the mat, your dog will get excited and grab the treat. Now you want your dog on the mat and the rule to any successful training is to reward this wanted behavior. So, as soon as your pet gets on the mat, place another treat on the mat. At this point, your dog has understood that you want him on the mat. So he will expect another treat and will probably lie down on the mat on all fours. Praise him at this point and say ‘good boy’. You can also stroke and pat your dog (if he likes to be stroked). Remember: not all dogs are fond of touch.
Step 3 – Pause and wait to treat
Now at this point, you need to take a short pause. Wait to hand out the next treat. Your dog will probably jump to sniff at your hand. So you say, ‘down’ or ‘relax’. As soon as he obeys and gets down on the mat, then give the treat and praise.
Step 4 – Continue
Gently place one more treat on the mat (only as long as your pet is calm and on the mat). Continue using soothing voice and keep praising him. Place the treat, one after other, on the mat. Your dog has now calmed down completely. You can relax too and just sit still and do nothing. Your dog will get the cue to relax.
Step 5 – Increase duration between rewards
Now let us assume your pet is still on the mat. You need to increase the duration between the treats. Your dog might get up and look at you. He will then understand that he is only rewarded if he is down on the mat completely. As soon as he gets in position, i.e. his chin on the mat, then reward him. Use the words ‘Relax, and good boy’ so he learns to associate the word relax with getting down on the mat.
Step 6 – Time the pauses between rewards
At this point, assuming that your dog is completely on the mat, wait/pause with the treats. You need to just keep him on the mat and make him wait a bit; not too long that he gets bored and his attention wanders. Then give him a treat. You need to look for one thing here: make sure he keeps his head on the mat – that is important here. The key is to look for behaviors that indicate he is relaxing which include:
- Head down, lower jaw/chin on the mat.
- Eyes starting to shut
- Slow and deep inhalation and exhalation
All these are signs show that your dog is relaxed. You can reinforce this behavior by gently stroking the dog (if your dog likes to be stroked) else you can always give food treats. However, we do not want the pet to become food focused. So again-let me reiterate this point- we want the dog to relax without treats.
Step 7 – Make sure your pet isn’t looking at you
You do not want your dog just staring expectantly at you all the time. Remember, you are ultimately training your pet to relax when you have visitors or when you go to eat out at a restaurant. So wait for him to turn his attention away from you and slowly put his chin down on the mat with deep slow relaxed breaths. As soon as your dog gets in that position, reward him with a treat and say the word relax and good boy.
Step 8 – Repeat training daily
You may want to repeat all of the above steps daily for 5-10 minutes each. Now, in the beginning, you will be handing out a lot of treats but you eventually want to reduce the number of treats. Treats are just for training purpose. You eventually want to get to the point where you dog can relax without being treated. As he gets better at relaxation, you can decrease treating. If he gets up and goes away, it is a sign that you are not rewarding enough. So you might want to increase duration of relaxation and still know when to treat-enough to keep his attention. Build this duration slowly. Be consistent. Do not rebuke or shout at your pet. As stated before, perform this training session after he has been exercised.
It is very easy to train a dog to be calm. However, you need to start this training early on, right from his puppyhood. Do socialize your dog so he gets along with other pets and humans. Sometimes, you could have an anxious or abused dog on your hands that simply cannot calm down despite your best efforts. He may have had a traumatic past or could be suffering from separation anxiety or a general fear of humans. In such a case, please consult a vet or a canine behavior specialist. Please also check out my guide on calming dogs having anxiety issues.