Teaching Dogs to be Calm with Mat Work


Does your dog need help relaxing? Are they always on the go? Are they struggling with overarousal issues or separation anxiety? Mat work is the answer to teaching dogs to be calm.

Our veterinary behaviorist diagnosed Mr. N with “overarousal” issues and separation anxiety. He prescribed doing Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol but suggested tweaks to how we had been working on it (there’s also an audio version). You teach your dog how to relax (usually in a down pose) on a and follow the protocol which runs on a fifteen day cycle. Your dog learns how to stay on the mat and relax while you do things like jog, walk away, clap your hands, and disappear from sight. Distance, duration and distractions are all covered throughout the protocol. It’s quite common to repeat days if your dog is struggling with a particular part.

Mat work also helps with giving your dog a space of their own, teaching stay, having dogs not be underfoot, and keeping them out of the way when needed.

Teaching dogs to be calm 1
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Tips for Achieving Relaxation

Mark and Reward Signs of Relaxation Instead of Just a Down

Mr. N knew how to go to his mat on cue and would go into a Sphinx down. If you looked at him though, you could see how he was all anticipatory and standing at attention in a down pose. Instead of truly relaxing.

The behaviorist initially suggested trying to get him to relax on his side (the pose dogs do when they play dead). Mr. N is more of a curled up sleeper than a side sleeper so I’m using mainly that as his relaxed pose. Now I mark any signs of relaxation (curling up, shifting to his side, putting his head and tail down and basically any signs of a more relaxed posture).

No Clickers

If your dog is used to clicker training at all, clickers tend to amp them up and they will start throwing behaviors at you. I was advised to use a marker word instead (ours is just “yes”) and speak in a soft and gentle tone of voice instead of my more crisp tone when marking.

Incorporate a Remote Treat Dispenser

One of the primary reasons we’re doing matwork is to work on Mr. N’s separation anxiety issues. In order to incorporate distance but still mark/treat immediately, we were advised to use a remote treat dispenser. If you don’t have one/can’t afford one, a no-cost solution is to use a neutral person. They can sit by the dogs and dispense treats. This only works if the dog is not focused on the person.

Petsafe sent us their to try out. After experimenting, I’ve found either or (hard or soft) to work best. Some people have also found small round cereal like to work well (Mr. N is not a carb fan). I’ve been having some issues with it jamming periodically but otherwise it’s working well.

Mr. N thinks the treat dispenser is magical. You use a remote to dispense treats and it can mount on the wall or be free standing. It works well when I’m treating from a distance. I can go touch the doorknob and reward immediately when he is still by the kitchen on his mat and not showing signs of anxiety.

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Use Low Value Treats

High value treats like or human leftovers may add to your dog’s arousal while working on training. So you want to find something that they like but they don’t find super exciting. Depending on your dog, that may be green beans or a grain of rice or kibble or cereal.

Do you use mat work? How do you teach your dog(s) to be calm?

Welcome to First Monday’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little TerrierTravels with Barley and Wag ‘n Woof Pets. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below.  Our theme for this month is Calming & Impulse Control – How do you get your dog to settle down but any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are also always welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long. Our next hop will begin May 1st and continues for a week.




22 Responses

  1. Jan K

    April 3, 2017 4:30 pm

    Oh…Relaxation Protocol. I don’t know who hated it worse, Luke, or me. We made progress for a while but then stalled at some point and gave up. Though we certainly use some of its principals in the mat work we do now, but it’s just not as tedious!
    I would love to try a remote trainer, but with two sometimes food aggressive dogs, we just can’t. If I had a single dog, I’d try one in a minute though!
    I hope this helps with Mr. N’s separation anxiety. He looks pretty content in that last photo!

  2. Pamela Webster

    April 3, 2017 5:24 pm

    I’ve been wondering how to reward Honey for a more relaxed state. Right now, I rely on watching carefully and having a little morsel tucked away that I can toss her. But I’m very familiar with the sphinx pose.

    I was unclear from the post–does your remote treat dispenser have a remote control that you use to send the treat to Mr. N?

    • Tenacious Little Terrier

      April 3, 2017 5:28 pm

      Are you familiar with splitting? You have to chop up the relaxed state into very tiny, fine pieces. So for example, Honey stops thumping her tail and is still. Mark and reward. She shifts her body a tiny bit to the right to adjust. Mark and reward. I’ll try to make a video if that’s helpful!
      Yes, it has a remote control.

  3. Beth

    April 3, 2017 5:51 pm

    It sounds like Mr. N is making great progress! I think the treat dispenser would make Barley lose her mind–we’ve used them in agility when we were starting to train weaves and she would skip the weaves and go sit right in front of it and just wait there for something to happen.

  4. Barbara Rivers

    April 4, 2017 1:55 pm

    Your mat work sounds intriguing! Much success, Mr. N. I don’t have to deal with separation anxiety in my pups, but they break their concentration when we’re practicing tricks or obedience outside and a cat or squirrel comes into their field of vision. I have yet to find a solution to that problem :-/

  5. Rebecca at MattieDog

    April 5, 2017 4:24 am

    I’ve always been intrigued by the mat work protocol. We have not tried it and are looking to explore it more over the summer. Your piece give great insight into how to proceed. Thanks! Me N seems to be doing great!!

  6. Kitty Cat Chronicles

    April 5, 2017 10:01 am

    Interesting! I’ve never heard of mat training before, but it sounds like a great solution to those with overarousal issues and separation anxiety. You do such an amazing job with Mr. N – I always enjoy reading about the different things you’ve trained him to do 🙂

  7. Beth

    April 5, 2017 6:02 pm

    I never thought about it before, but Mr. N does radiate a lot of energy in most of his photos. He looks very relaxed, but still adorable in these images. It sounds like your Christmas gift was really worthwhile.

  8. Dolly the Doxie

    April 5, 2017 7:27 pm

    This looks like a really cool product. According to my mom, I have separation anxiety. Around the house I’m very relaxed and will sleep in a room that mom isn’t even in. But sometimes when she tries to leave I want to stop her from going out the door. Not sure if this would work for me, maybe better for Taffy that follows you every where! Love Dolly

  9. Christine Caplan

    April 5, 2017 9:01 pm

    I’m really considering the remote treat dispenser tool for the “stay” on your mat training technique. I use that with Walter but getting him to stay is really hard and I need to work on this more in the coming weeks – I haven’t see it used with the mat so I love that you introduced that!

  10. Carol Bryant

    April 5, 2017 10:09 pm

    It is nice to learn about these various training methods and how you teach Mr N to do the different things. Dex never had an issue with being calm and we even passed CGC on first try.


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