We all know how important it is to exercise our dogs, to: walk them, play with them and even train them. We are now as a society also realizing how important it is to exercise their brain and provide mental stimulation (see one of my previous blogs). Do you also know how important it is to teach our dogs to switch off? To teach them that they can be calm and happy just… doing nothing!
Not only is this an essential skill to teach your dog in order for them to fit into our often busy lifestyles but it’s crucial for your dog to learn that life is not always go go go; putting too much emphasis on exercise and physical activities increases levels of both adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones are healthy and normal for short periods, however it’s important to allow our dogs to have down-time in order for those hormones to return to baseline levels so as not to impact on long term health.
I’ve heard the myth many times that more active dogs need ‘3 hours of walking a day, multiple games and to be worked constantly in order to calm down at other times’. Although it is absolutely true that our dogs need adequate exercise and environmental enrichment, having this mindset could be detrimental to our dogs and make it impossible for them to relax when we need them too, due to increased levels of the stress hormones mentioned above. There should be a balance and our dogs naturally should be sleeping and resting more than us humans, activity should be followed by adequate rest times.
I am sure you’ve heard that routine is extremely helpful when raising puppies and in this I agree; making their environment predictable allows them to understand what is expected of them. When creating a routine that works for you and your dog I advise adding calmness and sleep into the plan. I often ask my clients to consider having a daily layout that roughly adheres to the following pattern:
1. Physical exercise (game, walk, sports, play).
2. Mental exercise (training, scatter feeding, scent, puzzle feeders).
3. Calming activity (natural chews, stuffed Kong, lickimat or snuffle mat).
4. Rest and sleep (can be combined with the previous step in your dog’s designated quiet area).
This pattern can be repeated 2 to 3 times a day depending on what works best for you. Use food to your advantage, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, consider reducing food given from a bowl and save it for the routine. When feeding kibble I often save this for: training, scatter feeding, snuffle mats and puzzle feeders. When feeding wet/fresh/raw I use these for stuffing Kong, Topp’ls and similar toys.
Stay tuned for my next blog in which I outline how to make an ideal quite area!
So now you see, it is important to teach your dog to relax and cope when you cannot give them your attention, but how do we teach it?
Start as young as possible by encouraging your puppy to have quiet time each day, as the above pattern demonstrates. I teach the ‘settle’ command as an exercise but you can teach the word's meaning by asking your dog to ‘settle’ each time you take them to the quiet area.
You can play games to help your dog to calm down after becoming excited. My favourite is a tug game, if I win the toy or ask my puppy to drop I will wait for them to sit down and look at me, I’ll tell them ‘good’ and offer them the toy saying ‘take it’ to continue our fun game. I will repeat this a few times. It teaches your dog that they can calm down and when they do the game can resume!
I recommend teaching a strong settle! You will need:
- A quiet area.
- A comfy settle blanket or bed, I have a designated ‘settle’ blanket so there are strong associations and I can take it to places such as pubs, as we progress.
- A treat pouch.
- A good supply of small training treats/good quality kibble.
I have condensed the steps into small bullet points below. If you need help teaching a settle please get in touch and we can go over this together in more depth. I teach a ‘settle’ as part of my 6-week 121 puppy course. Remember the aim is not just to teach a position but an emotional state: relaxation.
Encourage your dog onto the blanket with a lure, saying ‘settle’ as he steps on and reward by tossing a treat by his paws.
Lure your dog into a down position and reward by tossing the treat between his front paws. Move your dog into a more relaxed position by luring a treat past his nose and shoulder to encourage one of his hips to come over and reward as before.
Say ‘okay’ and invite him away from the blanket, rewarding him with praise or a short game when he reaches you.
Repeat this above step, slowly turning the reward steps into one step so that your dog understands to get on the blanket and get into a relaxed down when you say ‘settle’ and move off when you say ‘okay’
Now we want to work on the duration of this exercise by teaching your dog that they can remain in this position for longer periods.
Once in the position from step one, slowly drip feed treats by tossing them between his front paws. Try to be calm, you do not need to mark or make too much eye contact as this excites some dogs.
If he moves away before you release him, just ignore this and ask him back onto the blanket to continue the exercise before giving an ‘ok’
Save a fun game for after the ‘ok’ to teach them it pays to wait for that word.
Try to capture relaxed behaviour with a jackpot reward (a small handful of treats). This can be anything from a yawn, stretch or placing his head flat.
Slowly increase the time between each treat. A good time to practice this is when sitting down to watch a TV show with the blanket at your feet. You can use longer lasting food toys such as Kong’s as you progress.
At this point your dog should be happy spending a prolonged period of time relaxed on the mat, such as ten to thirty minutes.
Now we want to teach your dog that you’re not always going to be next to him with treats, but he can still relax and be rewarded.
Start by tossing your treat, taking a few steps away, returning to toss a treat and then walking away again. Repeat this and slowly increase how far you travel each time.
Start to combine this with step two by walking away and increasing the time you’re ‘busy’ before walking back to deliver your treat- or if you have good aim, toss the treat from where you are.
A good time to practice this step is when you’re cooking. Set your dog and his ‘settle’ blanket up in a space where you won’t fall over him! Have your treats in a pot ready and ask him to ‘settle’ walk away to prepare your dinner whilst popping back to reward. You can slowly increase time between popping back and as above you can use a Kong to help.
This is the stage where we start to add distractions. This is difficult for your dog so in the beginning you may need to reduce your duration and distance from previous steps and rebuild them with a distraction.
Make a list of distractions that you can introduce and do it slowly. For example, you might start with a tennis ball and once your dog is in position, bounce it once and the moment you have caught it and your dog is still in position, toss your treat.
The more distractions you work with the better your dog will be with this exercise. As well as using distractions at home such as: visitors, toys, postman, food, games and the hoover, you can use location for this step.
I also recommend checking out the relaxation protocol by Karen Overall: https://bit.ly/33caFiD