Monday, April 3, 2017

Relax! (Or How I Trained My Dogs to Rest on a Mat)

I've mentioned how important our mat has been in our positive training journey for the last two months of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop (here and here) and there were so many questions about our mat work training that when we decided to go with teaching our dogs to relax for April's theme, it only seemed natural to keep writing about our mat.

Did you say mat?!

When Barley and I first started working with our trainer, our goal was to reset Barley so her default when I wasn't engaging with her was to relax in a down. We wanted her to do this everywhere--on walks if I stopped to talk to a neighbor, in formal classes when she waited for her turn, in the vet's office, and at home--so we didn't introduce the mat right away. Instead, we did a game similar to the relaxation protocol many people are familiar with.

Our trainer called it the one-hour down game (I don't know why since we were keeping sessions short). I told Barley to down once and when she did, she got a jackpot of treats between her front paws. Then I stood up straight and immediately bent back down to give her a treat. Gradually, we'd increase the time between treats. If she got up, I wasn't allowed to make eye contact with her or look in her direction. I just had to wait for her to figure out how she'd gotten all of those treats. The second she was in her down again, she'd get another jackpot and we'd start at the beginning again.

Eventually, we moved on to taking one step backwards and then coming right back and feeding. Then a step to the side and back to treat. We did this until I could walk all the way around Barley without her getting up.

Contrary to what you may think, this is what calm looks like at our house.

We played this game everywhere: the living room, the training center, the backyard, my parents' house and yard, parks. Slowly, Barley started to relax out of her sphinx position into a position a nice relaxed position with her hips turned. We never used a mat and she did just fine relaxing on the floor, in the grass (as long as it wasn't wet), or on the sidewalk.

A few years later, we signed up for a reactive dog class with our same trainer and she introduced the concept of the mat as a safe place for dogs to relax.

We started just getting the dog comfortable with the mat. We'd set the mat on the ground and let the dog decide to step on it. Sniffing it, putting a paw on it, or interacting with it in someway earned a treat.

A throwback to 2013: Soth was determined to make Barley love her mat.

Once the dogs were comfortable with the mat, we'd walk them up to the mat and ask for a sit on the mat. A sit earned the dog one treat. Then we'd ask for a down, which earned them a jackpot of treats. We kept doing this until the dogs learned that down was the behavior that got the biggest reward on the mat. Once they'd learned that, we started playing the one-hour down game on the mat. Since Barley was already very familiar with that exercise, she caught on very quickly to the idea that the mat is a place you relax. I could put a mat down in agility class or next to the stove while I made pancakes and she'd stay on the mat until I released her.

When I got Rye, I knew she needed to understand mats, too. We started with the method we'd used in reactive dog class, combining the mat and the one-hour down game into one exercise. However, our obedience class used a slightly different method. We brought our mats to class and the trainer would have us sit a few feet away while she set a treat on the mat. When she gave the ok, we'd point at the treat and tell the dog to get it. Eventually, we added in the command "Go to your mat." Having the treat on the mat helped build the dog's drive for the mat. Then the dogs could do whatever they wanted on the mat as long as they stayed calm, but they earned treats for laying down.


We use our mat for everything. My girls are experts at entertaining themselves if I am not entertaining them, so the mat helps prevent them from getting into trouble. Sometimes they spend just a few seconds on the mat before being released; for example, I often send them to their mat while I get food out of the oven and as soon as the door is closed again, they are released. Other times, they spend quite a while there while I do dishes or cook dinner and I periodically give them a treat--on those occasions, they usually just fall asleep. Rye goes to her mat while I fill her bowl (she even did this on her own with a door mat while we were on vacation recently!) and waits until I give her the ok to eat. All of the dogs in Rye's obedience class have mats to rest on between exercises. Often we do a little mat work before we go to bed just to get everyone to calm down a little bit.

Barley really wanted to chase my parents' cat, but trainer Soth said she had to stay on her mat.

When Barley finishes dinner before Rye does, she goes to her mat.

Barley and Rye choose to share a mat. When we first started doing mat work together, I had two mats side by side, but the girls always ended up running to the same one and laying down. Barley has always left enough room on her mat for Soth since he has been her coach through all of her training struggles, so the transition to sharing with Rye didn't seem to bother her at all. Now, I don't worry about how many mats are out before I send them to one.

Barley was the laughing stock of class when they found out she shared with a cat.

We've done many different things to train relaxation--whether it's in the house, on walks, or during play--but the mat has been the most important in our training and transfers to so many different situations.

You can even use mats to get a photo when you stay in a cool cottage.

We're happy to be joining our co-hosts Wag 'n Woof Pets and Tenacious Little Terrier for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop.  This month, our theme is Calming and Impulse Control--How do you get your dog to settle down? But we welcome any positive training posts and you have until Sunday to join the hop! Be sure to check out all of the other creative ways people have taught their dogs to be calm.

18 comments:

  1. Wow, sounds like Barley and Rye really see their mat as a good place. And it's adorable that they like to share.

    I trained Honey to go to her bed in the kitchen by only tossing her morsels when I was cooking if she lay down and relaxed. It kept her out from underfoot.

    But I learned the real power of the mat when I was fostering an extremely fearful dog. Our trainer suggested I use a towel instead of a mat or pillow so I could take it with me on walks.

    When I saw something potentially scary up ahead (just about anything for this poor pup), I'd toss the towel on the ground and tell her to go to bed.

    It was a very helpful tool. I'm amazed more people don't realize what a powerful tool a mat is.

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    1. That towel idea is great (although I'm sorry your poor foster was so spooked that she needed it on walks)! We use pretty much anything flat that can be on the ground as a mat--we have one we keep in the kitchen, one that moves between the laundry room, living room, and bedrooms, and one that stays in the car for class. Rye's obedience trainer said she'll even use a sweatshirt if she's out in public and needs the dogs to settle. They really are so helpful!

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  2. Such good girls! I've been lazy with this and just use a wait or stay, but need to get around to mat training.

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    1. They are good girls--crazy, but good :) We use wait and stay, too, but not with our mat since that's supposed to eventually be a choice for them to go and relax. Rye isn't quite to the point where she chooses to relax on her mat without being told to go there consistently (although I did see her on a mat on vacation a couple times!), but Barley usually just goes to her mat in the kitchen without being told :)

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  3. We always have had go to your bed or crate, but never heard of mat until last summer. We don't use it much around here, but we are all pretty mellow most of the time and usually go to our beds all on our own and just hang out. It is a cool thing to train, though.

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    1. We call our beds mats, too :) Pretty much anything on the ground that they can relax on is called a mat. Rye's still learning that she can go to the bed and hang out, but Barley usually chooses that on her own now if I am grading papers or cooking and can't hang out with her.

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  4. We work on impulse control specifically in Hunt Test. It is challenging because in Hunt Test you are asking for calm and impulse control (steady) before asking the dog to do work (retrieving). We teach it differently of course. Although we do sometimes use a mat with young dogs. It gives them a visual place to be. The mat would be next to the handler.

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    1. I imagine that is quite a challenge to teach! Barley can probably relate in agility class since she's often used her mat as a calm place between turns in agility class, but then she has to get amped up to run the course before going right back to her mat. She's learned enough control that we don't bring the mat to class for her anymore, but I'm guessing it wasn't easy for her to do that even though she did very well with it :)

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  5. You've done so great with them! I like that mats can be kind of generic too. We use "bed" but it applies to any bed in the house, or sometimes a rug. Luke knows to lie on the rug outside the kitchen when I point there, and he does automatically go there when meals are being dished out. I do need to work with him more in other places though. Once the weather gets nicer we'll take it outside onto the deck.
    I love Soth as the coach, and the fact that your girls share a mat!
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

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    1. Coach Soth is always one of my favorite parts of training--he will crouch beside the jump when I'm working with Barley and a jump inside and he's helped me train Rye to have a solid stay by pouncing on her long line and tugging it while she's staying. I can't wait for the day Rye starts going to mats on her own regularly. It sounds like Luke has mastered that ;)

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  6. This is something that I wish I would have trained my dogs to do and I wonder if I can still do this with four dogs. They get pretty high strung when someone knocks on our door or even steps foot on our property. It's really hard to get them to settle down.

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    1. Rye has caught onto the mat even more quickly than Barley did since she's done most of the training with Barley, so I'm sure you could train it with 4! You might need to do a little one-on-one work just to get them to know what you want on the mat, but both of my girls picked up on that in just one session, so I wouldn't think you'd need to do too much of that.

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  7. Mr. N has voluntarily been choosing to sleep on his mat more and more which is good. Mr. N is very good about settling in the house and he hardly ever gets into trouble indoors which is why we didn't do mat work for the longest time but I'm hoping it will help with his separation anxiety!

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    1. Oh good! I'm glad Mr. N is choosing his mat. My favorite part of it is that it's a safe spot that transfers to any location--we've just started adding a second mat to work on sending between them at the suggestion of our agility trainer and they seem to be catching on quickly, so we're going to add distance and a third mat over the next few days.

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  8. That is very fascinating and I can see how very important this can be around the home or when out. Thank you for sharing your experiences with this method of training.

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    1. They best part is that the dogs see it as a game, so they're excited about working with their mats!

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  9. I bet it feels good to see Barley and Rye getting along so well ... the pictures of them side by side are incredible! I love the idea of positive training ... and one thing every pet parent encounters is an anxious or frightened furbaby. In the moment, there's so little we can do and that's frustrating ... but the concept of training a designated "safe" or "calm" place makes so much sense! Thank you for linking up to the Showcase!

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    1. It does feel good! They've come such a long way since I first introduced Rye in the Showcase! The mat has been such a good thing for us, so we're happy to see so many other people starting to use one, too.

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