Monday, January 27, 2014
Why Chilling On The Mat Is Better Than Just Chilling
Unless you’re craving 24/7 action, which isn’t healthy for a dog and probably also not for you, life with a canine who settles at times is a lot more pleasurable.
There are two options:
Either you acquire a hardwired couch potato, and good luck with that because even if you expect a certain breed to be low-key, not every individual is and especially not when young, or you could teach a settle on the mat which works with every dog.
True, settling doesn’t necessitate a mat. Most dogs are very capable of finding a cozy spot when they feel like chilling out, but incorporating a mat has a whole bunch of advantages:
It becomes a visual and tactile cue for your dog to settle, and once it is you can transport it to different rooms in your home and indicate where you’d like her to slouch.
It helps when company comes. We all know what usually happens when the bell rings or there is a knock on the door: If the dog loves people, she gets excited, and if she doesn’t, she gets anxious. Either way, she barks, charges the door, and jumps because she is aroused, and because she doesn’t know what else to do. The mat could become the targeted spot you direct her to.
You can take the mat with you when you’re away from home. Many dogs are nervous in a new environment because they don’t know how their world works there, and the mat can anchor the pooch, like a security blanket.
That includes the training facility, where the mat can be your dog’s safe retreat, a spot you send her to when you are not actively working. Or it could make a specific starting point clearer for a dog, help her to learn the place from where the next activity begins.
You can put a mat on the couch or bed to induce your dog to stay on her end, which means your guests clothes won’t be covered with hair, and you might have a more restful sleep.
A cautionary word: What you are aiming for is that the mat becomes an important “my space” association, but with that the dog might also defend it against others. I am okay with that. My dogs are allowed to give “buzz off” signals that are appropriate – a growl for example. It is a different story when a dog overreacts and attacks a retreating dog, or lacks inhibition and there is a risk of a bite. In that case, there is a bigger issue at paw, and I advice you consult with an experienced and force free behavior specialist.
With most dogs, though, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
Here is how you can convince your dog that settling on the mat is a wonderful thing.
If you like shaping, present your dog with a new and comfy mat, and mark and reward when she shows interest in it. Once she deliberately targets the mat to score a treat, stop reinforcing that and wait until she finds a new mat behavior, for example puts a paw on it. When she does that deliberately, stop reinforcing until two paws are on it – four – she sits – she lies. Keep the loot coming as long as she is on the mat, and stop when she leaves.
If you’re like me and shaping is not entirely your thing, place a mat beside you when you read, work on the computer, or watch TV. Don’t prompt, but whenever she settles on it, drop treats – fairly frequently in the beginning, or provide a yummy filled Kong, or a chewy/bone. Food is better than a toy because you want your dog to settle, not move around, but a toy to rip up can also work, just not one she rolls around and then chases.
I’ll let you in how cooking dinner and mealtimes play out in our house: I invite the dogs to join us with the come command if they’re in another room (which rarely happens), or with let’s go if they are near me (this is where you typically find my dogs). Dogs are very keen on human food, which means I get 100% compliance, so why would I want to miss such a great opportunity to practice recall or having my dog walk with me.
The mat is placed approximately 6 feet from where we are, and if I have a rookie learner I’ll tether her to a piece of furniture or the bannister to set her up for success.
Whenever the dog reclines on the mat, I toss a piece of exactly what almost every dog wants: human food. With the rookie, tidbits land fairly frequently on the mat, but in time I can prepare a whole meal or finish dinner before I share some of my food.
A more alpha-oriented trainer might warn you that a dog who is keen on your food is status seeking, and when you give it you'd elevate her status, but that’s just crap talk. It is the giver who controls the resources and hence has the power, not the recipient.
What really happens is that your dog is motivated by something you control, mentally connects with you, is calmly attentive, practices self-restraint because she waits on the mat, or completely relaxes around the distraction of food. All behaviors you want in other aspects of your life together.
Plus, including your dog into your social life strengthens your relationship. Food sharing is bonding, and you reinforce the mat settle effectively, which strengthens that behavior, which means your dog will offer it more reliably, relaxingly, repeatedly, and at one point you won't have to tether her any longer.
There is another benefit: Whenever you let a dog observe people doing stuff, in our house we call it supervising, you provide satisfying and tiring mental stimulation; enrichment without having to invest extra time – nowadays often in short supply.
And, settling on the mat around food sets the stage for the dog to learn to also settle when there are other distractions, for example when someone is at your door or entering your home. In that case, provide prolonged entertainment – the Kong, or chewy, or bone, and temporarily return to the tether.
Initially, when you begin mat training, make it a limited resource, which means remove it when the session is over. That way you raise motivation, and your dog will be über-happy whenever you bring it out again and ready to work with you.
In that sense, release your dog, with a specific verbal cue like all-done or finished when she still wants to be on the mat.
Later on, you can leave it out, because your goal is that it becomes both a spot your dog chooses to go to when she wants to chill, and a place you can purposely direct her to.
With the former, your dog is allowed to self-release, but whenever you send her to the mat, you are also the one who releases her, either with your general cue, or a specific one when you want her to do a certain action next.
What position should the dog be in? To me, and most owners, it doesn’t really matter if the dog sits, lies or stands on the mat. She can choose whatever is comfortable, and I name the behavior, the being on the mat, settle. Naturally, with dogs authentic relaxation means they’re stretched out, so that is the position she’ll likely be in.
However, if you also use the mat as a momentary target point, a certain position is likely important and then do use your precise corresponding command for sit, down or stand.
Like with all training, the rules of adding duration, distance and distractions, one at a time and gradually raising the bar, apply here too.
Especially getting a solid mat stay in connection with the entrance door and people’s comings and goings can be a bit more complex than providing a mat and a filled Kong: You have to find the right motivator, very incrementally increase distractions, even build up to a frozen Kong to prevent that the dog becomes discouraged because getting the loot out is too difficult.
I will talk about all that in future posts, but your friendly behavior consultant can also help you with your and your dog’s individual abilities and challenges.