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 mat 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.
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).
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 Train N Praise to try out. After experimenting, I’ve found either or Tricky Trainers (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.
Use Low Value Treats
High value treats like freeze-dried meat 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 Terrier, Travels 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.