Training for a Relaxed and Calm Dog
Relaxation and meditation is known for having such health benefits as decreased heart and respiratory rates and decreasing anxiety. Relaxation can also be taught to your dog as a conditioned response. Just like Pavlov taught a dog to drool in response to the ringing of a bell, you can teach your dog to decrease his anxiety, and relax in times of stress. This type of training can be essential for owners looking for ways to help treat dogs with behavior problems and anxiety disorders, and is also crucial for any good training program.
Often, I think we unknowingly condition our dogs to get excited as a response to most exciting things that go on in our world. Our dogs are unknowingly conditioned to get overly excited when people come over to visit, when we take them out on a leash, when we come home; almost everything we do in some ways encourages our dogs to get excited.
Let me explain; when people come over it is normal for most dogs to get excited the inherent problem therein lies when we allow them to be rewarded for this behavior, we pet them, we allow our company to pet them or we shriek at them to get down and get off of people; therefore giving them attention for their poor behavior. After a few visits, this excitement, which has previously been rewarded, gets to be the custom and your dog thinks he must show this behavior in order to be interacted with; i.e. a conditioned response to exciting stimulus.
I once worked with a client who allowed his dog to bark and scream and pull him toward the beach each time they arrived. When the dog was a puppy, he thought it was cute, but he didn’t realize he was conditioning the barking and screaming and pulling as a response to being at the beach. The dog thought this was a part of a ritual he had to perform to get to the beach. We had to regress and teach this dog calming techniques and teach him that only when he was calm was he allow access to walks and play on the beach. They had to drive to and away from the beach several times before the dog realized that he would only be rewarded while he was calm.
Relaxation must be taught as a response to exciting stimulus, and can even be used to help focus dogs with mild aggression problems. (Dogs with severe aggression problems should seek the advice of a Veterinary Behaviorist before trying any training program.) Do not pet or reward your dog if he is showing signs of stress, teach him to be calm.
Take your dog to a quiet room, one that is free of distractions. Next take a treat in each hand and show them both to your dog, then bring them up toward your eyes. Your dog should look from one treat to another and back and forth until finally in a moment of frustration he looks directly into your pupils. As his eyes look into yours tell him what he is doing by saying “Watch” in a calm tone. Dogs often mirror our behavior, in order to teach your dog to be calm you must show the same attributes. After a few brief seconds of holding your gaze, praise and give your dog the treat. If your dog is tense, do NOT reward! If he is showing signs of stress stop this lesson and try again later. Do not reprimand him, just discontinue the session.
Your dog MUST be relaxed!! Relaxation is the purpose of this exercise. Your dog’s posture should be malleable and tranquil, if he is stiff, trembling or shivering then try again later. His pupils should be small in size not large and hard.
Continue this until he is readily looking into your eyes. Once you think your dog has mastered this command, take the treats away from your eyes and take them out at arm’s length out to each side. If your dog is still staring deep into your eyes and not looking at your hands your dog has mastered the command. If your dog is still watching the treats in your hands, he is not yet ready.
If you are having trouble getting your dog to relax, try this exercise just after your dog has taken a nap and is already relaxed, or when he is tired, just prior to a nap.
Once your dog is looking at you in a peaceful manner, hold the treat behind your back and give the “watch” command. Wait until eye contact is made then reward. If your dog can do this with no problem, wait to reward until he holds your gaze for a longer period of time. Every time you change the difficulty level expect some failures and just back up a few steps in training if needed. DO NOT get frustrated, this does not encourage relaxation, simply back up and praise him for something that is easier for him to achieve.
Practice on and off throughout the day at random times. Just remember not to reward your dog for any signs of stress i.e. panting, whining, crying, pacing or trembling. Extend this until he can stare into your eyes for 15 to 20 seconds.
Once your dog is 95% reliable with the command in an environment without distractions, take him to a room with a few distractions (like windows or your kids playing). When he has mastered (95% reliable) in a room with minor distractions, take him outside to the backyard and work until he has mastered the command in that environment. As he masters the command in a multitude of environments you can continue to increase the level of difficulty while still expecting some failure or learning events, just back up in your training as these occur. Remember don’t get frustrated, this is a normal step when learning any new behavior.
When your dog can stare into your eyes reliably with a multitude of distractions, you can begin using this command for all kinds of situations:
- When you have a dog that is fearful or mildly aggressive
- In situations when you are unsure how your dog will react
- To bring your dog’s focus and attention back to you before you give a command or after a distraction is added
- And even when preparing for competition obedience
Eye contact is the foundation to good obedience, and it is a great way to strengthen the bond between you and your canine companion.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.