Calm Training for a Relaxed Dog
For humans, calm training can be used to become relaxed. A mindfulness meditation state is known to achieve amazing mental health, and health benefits overall such as decreased heart and respiratory rates and decreased anxiety. Calm can also be taught to your dog as a conditioned response to something that would ordinarily cause stress or anxiety. Just as Pavlov taught dogs to drool in response to the ringing of a bell, you too can teach your dog to decrease his anxiety, and relax in times of stress.
This type of training is essential for dog owners that are looking at options to help treat their dogs with behavior and anxiety issues, and is also important to implement in obedience training. Often times, 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; like it or not, your dog is learning from you every day. And unfortunately, if you are like most dog owners, it means your dog is learning to MISBEHAVE! Because if you’re not applying calm training to teach your dog impulse control, your dog is filling this void with life lessons that he’s figuring out for himself.
When people come over it is normal for most dogs to get excited. The problem is that we allow them to be rewarded for this behavior. We get excited to have guests come over – We speak excitedly, we pet them while they are jumping around, we allow our company to pet them as well; or instead, we yell at them to get down and back off while pushing or swatting, or heaven forbid, kneeing them.
What are we doing? Giving them attention whether good or bad for their poor behavior. After a few visits, this excitement, which has been previously 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 yelp obnoxiously as he pulled him toward the beach each time they arrived. When the dog was a puppy, my client thought it was hilarious, but he didn’t realize he was programming his dog that the barking and obnoxious screaming and pulling as a response to being at the beach was acceptable. The dog thought this was a part of a ritual he had to perform to get to the beach.
We had to reprogram and teach my clients dog calming techniques, and teach him that only when he is a calm dog is he allowed to walk and play on the beach. There was a lot of driving to and from the beach going on before the dog realized that he will only be rewarded when he is calm.
Why should I train my dog to be calm?
We all have impulses. The impulse to get up or sleep in, in the morning, the impulse to find the bathroom, the impulse to cry or to laugh, we are inundated by impulses all of the time! As we, as humans, age; we learn to control and not act on our impulses.
And, we teach our children these lessons so that they too, can maintain appropriate behavior in social situations. But sometimes we forget to teach our dogs! We think our dogs are so very cute no matter what they do, we spoil them a bit and we simply never teach them to control their impulses.
AND, they are dogs… so they don’t really see any need on their own to control their impulses! They jump when they want to jump, some of them go potty where and when they want, they chase the cat when they want, they steal food when we leave it out… they do what feels good. They don’t have the ability to look back and think about consequences.
That is what separates us; we can think about what we will do tomorrow and reflect on what we did yesterday. Dogs live in the moment. Many of your dog’s behavior problems have a component of fear, anxiety or an excitable dog making training sessions impossible to begin until a calm, relaxed state has been achieved on cue.
Calm training should focus on both the behavioral response as well as your dog’s emotional state. In fact, until you can get your pet to focus on you, and relax on cue in the absence of the stimuli that evokes the fear, anxiety or an excitable dog, it is not practical to attempt to get your dog to relax in the presence of anyone or anything that causes it. A great place to begin is with different cues than your dog is already used to. That will help the both of you to remember and understand the desired behavior.
How does Calm training work?
Teaching your dog to be calm is useful for almost every situation. From calmly waiting to be leashed before going out for a walk to sitting patiently while waiting to be fed, to be thrown his favorite ball or for your attention and affection. Calm training is one of the most important concepts to teach any dog, whether or not there is an existing behavior problem.
Unfortunately, we tend to deal with our dogs impulsiveness by being reactive rather than proactive in the way we teach him. When we punish the undesired behavior(s), we often tend to cause confusion and anxiety, making it harder for your dog to settle down – have you ever noticed the angrier you get with your dog, the more your dog acts out? That is because he is doing everything he can to please you.
He’s confused and is in panic mode. Whereas if you would just simply take the dog away from getting what he wants when he starts to act out, and wait for him to calm down, and exhibit good manners, your dog will become calmer, more focused and obedient.
How do I get started? First – Impulse Control
I think one of the biggest “sources” of dog behavior problems that I see as a dog trainer is their lack of impulse control. Dogs are used to getting what they want when they want it, or they will just get it themselves. And no, that isn’t your dog being spiteful, that is what nature tells him, will keep him alive.
And, when we allow our dogs to reward themselves or we reward them for their mere existence we are in turn creating little furry monsters! Human life is full of impulse control. I can’t punch the guy sitting next to me and take his Cheetos even if I am hungry and Cheetos are my favorite treat.
Drooling on his shoes or staring in his eyes while he eats is also not going to get me rewarded. Our hands get slapped and we get told NO as soon as we begin toddling around and exploring our world and we make wrong choices. Eventually we learn appropriate manners and how to ask for the things we want.
In essence, we control our impulses to eat whenever and whatever we want, say whatever we want, and do other inappropriate things that social norms don’t allow. Sure you can take your pants off and run around at 2 but it really isn’t allowed as we age. However sometimes we allow our dogs to have all kinds of inappropriate behaviors without addressing them such as:
- We allow our dogs to steal our food.
- Steal our things.
- Jump on us.
- Bite or nip us.
- Tug on the leash, etc.
Bottom Line: Dogs Cannot Learn Obedience if They Have No Impulse Control
It is pretty simple. Dogs really can’t learn any form of obedience if they don’t have the simple ability to control their own impulses. This is the basics of the basics.
And, interestingly, I have seen some dogs who have learned to control their impulses while training but cannot leave food or toys alone to save their life. It is like they compartmentalize training and only do it under certain circumstances. None of us want a dog that can’t control himself in most situations!
So we must teach him impulse control in all places and in all things. Our dogs should not be allowed to steal food from the floor, the counter, and our hands. And, they shouldn’t be allowed to dive head first into their food dish without being told. It is good manners to teach your dog to wait until he is told to eat!
It also ensures that he will be less likely to steal from children or others that he deems weaker than himself. I say “less likely” because you actually have to train for this if you have children or others from whom he likes to steal!
The Next Steps
I think we all can agree, that dogs with impulse control make much better companions. And, although obedience is a form of impulse control, it is also delegated by command or cue when true impulse control comes from the dog’s choice.
You aren’t going to use a command just yet. The goal is for your dog to learn that if he controls his impulses, good things will come.
What You Need to Begin:
- High value treats: Squeeze Cheese, chicken, liver or something else your dog really likes.
- Low value treats: Dog food, dry dog biscuits, for instance something your dog likes but isn’t AS crazy about.
- A treat pouch to put them in; I prefer a low cost hardware bag with 2 pouches that you can get at your local big box or hardware sore.
- A leash (for added control for a jumping dog)
- A happy dog
First, I use low level treats when I first begin. I want my dog to learn good impulse control and eventually learn to leave steak or chicken or liver, but I want my dog to be as successful as possible in the meantime. I also think it helps us to not become as frustrated!
So separate your high level treats and your low level treats in your pouches. I put the low level treats in the right side and the high level treats in my left. My right hand is dominant and will do most of the work with the low level treats. I have my dog sit in front of me (if he can sit) if he can’t “sit” on command that is fine. (This is also appropriate to do with puppies!)
- I put a small low level biscuit in my right hand.
- Next I open my fist to show my dog the treat. 99% of dogs lunge purposely toward the cookie or treat; this is normal and to be expected.
- As soon as this happens I close my hand around the treat. SAY NOTHING!!! This is critical.
We want the dog to make the choice on his own! If the dog has to rely on a command, he will still be more likely to steal food from small children and from others. If we teach him to control himself, by his own choice we are teaching him a stronger behavior.
- As soon as he stops actively nuzzling, scratching, poking, nibbling etc. for the treat and has given up click and reward with a higher level treat from the left hand and the left side of your pouch. Dogs are smart. The dog will very quickly realize that you are giving him something more tasty and rewarding.
Continue doing this until he understands that NOT stealing the treat or rewarding himself is what you want and will get him rewarded.
- The next step is to move the placement of the treat in your hand. Use your left hand.
- Hold the treat high.
- Hold the treat low.
- Place you palm on the ground.
- Move your hand away quickly (think of jerky movements like children make). Teach your dog that no matter what an open OR closed fist with treats is NOT HIS!
Now it is time to introduce the high value treats.
- Put chicken, liver, or steak in that open palm and make sure your dog understands that no matter how good the treat is he cannot be rewarded by stealing it.
- Be patient! Refusing a much tastier reward is much more difficult!
- It is at this point that you CAN let him have the treat in your hand if you tell him that he can. Some people don’t ever want to do this… and I understand. The behavior is more solid if he doesn’t think he will ever have a chance to snatch a treat from your palm.
This doesn’t mean you can’t give him treats… of course. It just means that his likelihood of success is probably higher. But, it also teaches them to listen for clarity.
So it is an option, but one you must make on your own! Do this for many days/several weeks.
Step 4 Teaching your Dog to “Leave It” Advanced Impulse Control
So How Do You Teach “Leave It”?
- With your dog on his leash, take him to a secluded and distraction free area of your house where you can train together. This command needs your full attention and his at first while he is learning it!
- Keep the leash tight in your left hand, as you take a couple of low value treats out of your pouch and place them on the floor just out of your dog’s reach. Make sure he sees you put the treats down and restrict his access to the treats.
- Do not pop on the leash or correct him, let him strain for the treats but tell him “Leave It”.
- Ready your clicker! At first he should look at and strain himself toward the treats, but soon he will get frustrated that he cannot reach them and he will turn and look away from the treats and toward you because he is discouraged. At that moment when he turns and looks away from the treats click and reward him with the GREAT treat!
- If he continues to look at you, you can again praise and give a mediocre reward.
- Now touch the mediocre treats that are on the floor again or pick them up and put them down again, to get him interested in them once again.
- As he looks at them, tell him “Leave It” and wait until he ignores them and looks toward you; click and jackpot him for a correct response.
- Continue playing this game until he is hardly focused or not focused at all on the mediocre treats.
- Once he has grasped the concept, you can move the mediocre treats closer to your dog. Click and jackpot for a good response and continue to try to deny him access to the treats. This may take several sessions and mastery of this command could take much longer, be patient!
- Move them closer and closer until he pays no attention at all. He should now realize that the GREAT treats come from you, not the floor and that “Leave It” means he will get a better reward if he listens.
- Now, you may begin to use better and better treats as your “Leave It” distraction. Until he has completely given up trying to get the “Leave It” treat make the reward that comes from you better than the one you are using as a distraction.
Now that he is completely ignoring the treats you put down, you can use the same low value treat. Because he should now realize that the best things in life comes from you not from the floor, or anywhere else.
- Next tell him “Leave It” as you hold a treat in one hand. Click and reward with the opposite hand for a good response. He should be able to leave items you are eating or carrying as well as things on the floor.
13 Now that your dog is demonstrating consistent “leave it” for you, you can now employ the help of family members and friends by having them try to give him a treat but then telling him to “Leave It”. If he is really good, have them toss treats at him in an attempt to get him to make a mistake. This can help for those of you who are afraid your dog may be at risk from poisoning.
Also proof this behavior by putting food on his feet or up his arms. He should be able to ignore any distraction at this point and he should be having a good time knowing that the reward from you will be greater than anything tossed to him or stacked on him!
This game should always be fun! You are not scaring him from the distraction, you are simply teaching him that YOU are better than anything else. If you employ scare tactics you will likely end up with a dog that only listens while you are right next to him. If however he thinks this is a game and you might be right around the corner with his favorite treat, he will be more successful!
Remember a dog with impulse control makes a much better companion. And, if you do this in a happy manner it can be fun for you both!
How do I teach my dog “look,” “watch me,” or “focus”?
I often get asked, “Why should I teach my dog to give me eye contact?” There are several reasons actually. If he is nervous; eye contact and staring at you will be calming for your dog. If you have a dog that is dominant and wants to be in charge, eye contact is a good way to reinforce that you are the leader.
Eye contact and focus REQUIRES your dog to ignore everything else! Your dog cannot stare at you, while barking, lunging and looking at something or someone else!
What You Need
- Your dog
- A leash
- High value treats
- A clicker
- Your eyeballs
- With your dog on his leash, find a distraction free area to train in your house.
- Put high value treats in both hands and a clicker in one if you are clicker training.
- Show your dog that you have treats in BOTH hands by letting him smell your hands and the treats; and then bring both hands up on either side of your eyes.
- Your dog is probably going to go from looking at one hand, to the other; from one to another (because he knows they hold the treats) then he is probably going to get irritated and STARE into your pupils; it is at this exact moment that you want to click, praise and treat!
Make sure that his pupils meet your pupils since THIS is the behavior you are reinforcing. Looking at “your face” is not good enough! You want your dog to stare into your eyeballs; this way you can see exactly what he is looking at!
Frustration usually leads to the behavior in the beginning, and then you can quickly ask for it by giving it a command. Be patient and don’t give in too early or you won’t have a dog that truly understands the concept.
- It can be common for your dog to run through a gamete of behaviors if he has previous training and this is new to him. Ignore him if he lays down, barks, or otherwise acts frustrated. Wait until those eyes meet yours and click!
- Once he has mastered this distraction free, add distractions. Then have him earn his meals by holding eye contact. Challenge him! Before you know it, you will have a calm and focused canine companion.
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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.