How to teach your dog that it’s chill out time
Busy dogs like to be on the go all day, often leaving their human feeling utterly exhausted. If your canine chum seems to have a permanent case of the ‘zoomies’ then it’s time to teach them the benefits of having some chill-out time.
They’ll soon reap the rewards. When your dog relaxes, glutamate – a powerful neurotransmitter that’s released by nerve cells in the brain which plays an important role in learning and memory – rises. In addition, dopamine – the feel-good hormone – is released. And, with a chilled-out dog in the house, a similar effect will no doubt occur in their human companion...
So many distractions
However, getting your dog into a zen-like state is not without its challenges. It’s hard for your dog to learn to be settled when there are distractions, lots of activity or opportunities for attention – so it’s best to start training at home at a time when your four-legged pal is more likely to be already relaxing. You’ll know your dog is settled when they lie down, are not asking for attention and are not easily distracted by what’s going on around them. If you have a particularly perky pooch, you may need to begin by simply rewarding them for any behaviour that’s not staring at you, pulling on the lead, or barking.
Jenna Kiddie of canine rehoming charity Dogs Trust advises: “The key is to gradually reward more relaxed behaviours. And, of course, this will vary between dogs – some will automatically start lying down and you can quickly progress to rewarding your dog for this behaviour before moving on to reward specific signs of relaxing such as sighing, weight shifting and head resting. Some dogs will take longer and you’ll need to take things more slowly by rewarding behaviour such as standing quietly, disengaging from people or sniffing their blanket. When they’re relaxed, start increasing the time your dog is settled before you reward them. Build up gradually a couple of seconds at a time over multiple sessions.”
The canine behavioural experts at Battersea have created this seven-point step-by-step plan, designed to teach your dog to learn how to settle. To try it out with your canine chum, you’ll need a mat and plenty of training treats.
Place a mat, blanket or a towel on the floor so the dog has somewhere comfortable to lie down. Allow the dog to go over to the blanket and investigate. Reward the dog whenever they investigate or go near the mat. Reward them by throwing treats on the mat instead of giving them from your hand to help build a strong association that the mat is a good place.
To progress, reward the dog when they have two paws on the mat and gradually build this up to them having all four paws on the mat. Repeat this until the dog is comfortable to walk over and stand on the mat.
Once the dog is comfortable to stand on the blanket, ask the dog to lie down and then reward them.
Once your dog goes to lie down on the mat whenever you get it out, wait for the them to rest their head on the mat before rewarding.
Build up some duration for lying on the mat, do this by delaying reward for a couple of seconds initially and then increasing this at your dog’s pace. Don’t go too quickly or your dog might get up!
Once your dog is comfortable lying on the mat with you next to them, gradually increase the distance between you and the mat, moving one step away and rewarding them for staying on the mat.
Gradually include distractions and practice in different locations, using your dog’s mat as a cue to settle. This exercise should be calm and collected, practice at a time when your dog is already tired, encouraging calm behaviour from your dog.
More chill-out tips
Once your dog has learnt the basic objective of being settled, you can try training in different locations with more distractions. Dogs Trust has some more useful tips:
- Start by rewarding any relaxed behaviour your dog shows, from sitting quietly, and not pestering you, build up to lying down and completely relaxing.
- Slowly start building up distractions by practising the ‘settle’ in increasingly busy areas or ask a helper to create a distraction by walking past, progressing to more exciting activities like sweeping or skipping. If your dog becomes unsettled or gets up, ignore them and wait until they settle again before rewarding them. If they won’t relax and settle, increase distance from the distraction or make it less interesting.
- Withdraw your attention when they become over-excited or unsettled – no touching, talking or making eye contact, just turn your back and ignore them.
- Keep your dog on a short lead while training and ask people not to interact with them if they’re unsettled.
- Don’t tell your dog what to do during training, the aim is for them to learn for themselves to be calm and relax. This is a stronger form of learning and means that your dog will learn to settle without needing to be asked.
- Remember to go at your dog’s pace. If they move away from the mat or break their down position go back a step and lure them back into position.
For more great, practical advice, Dogs Trust also has a training video you can watch here
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