For those of you currently in classes, you may have heard Lisa and I recently talk about calmness and how important it is to ‘capture calmness’. Whether you are in classes or not and have heard about this exercise, here is the reason why we want to teach our dogs calmness or better still, capture calmness.
We often dream about the dog that can just chill out, is relaxed, is not fussed about what goes on around it, not stirred up every time you get up and move, not worried every time you move away from it, happy to just watch the world go by and you often wonder, can your dog be reinforced for that kind of behaviour or that feeling? The answer surprisingly is YES! But there is a catch as we need to be careful we are not actually working on our STAY as this is different. What we want to do is instead capture the moment the dog is naturally relaxed and casually reinforce it for not remaining calm but for ‘feeling’ calm. For the dogs who struggle to relax, we need to wait for them to try to settle and we capture those moments instead, working our way down to total relaxation. Let me explain this in a bit more detail.
STAY as many of you know, means don’t move, the dog has been instructed to remain in position until released. We are teaching the dog to behave or perform in a specific way by reinforcing it after the behaviour has occurred. We ask the dog to lie down, we remind it to STAY, we walk away and the dog knows not to move because the reinforcement comes once the owner returns. The dog also knows that at some stage the exercise will end, training over. So very likely your dog will be eager, focused, intense and working hard at remaining still; this means it will very unlikely be relaxed.
Now here is where it gets interesting and I want you to ask yourself, once the dog is released from a STAY, does it continue to remain calm or does it bounce up and start running around again, pacing, annoying you, rolling the ball at you, barking or getting up to mischief again?
If your answer was the latter, then this tells me your dog finds relaxing difficult and quite possibly does not even know how to! You see some dogs can only remain still when they are told to but if you left it up to them, they actually don’t quite know how to continue being still and this is an issue we are seeing as trainers more and more. We see dogs who can do amazing STAYS but as soon as the owner takes their eyes or attention off the dog, we see leash tugging, staring at other dogs, barking at the dog or barking at the owner for attention, we see whining, jumping, fidgeting and so much more. What we don’t often see if the dog take a huge breath and just continue to relax, hence why we are now adding this in classes.
You can also ask yourself, can the dog remain calm when around people, children or dogs and does your dog possibly suffer from anxiety? Capturing calmness can actually help with a lot of these issues and believe it or not, it is not that hard but it requires patience.
Capturing calmness is all about calmly and casually acknowledging the dog for feeling calm without being told to actually do it. What we are ultimately doing is reinforcing calmness because they dog is enjoying being in that state, not because we are going to deliver food to it when we return so there is a technique involved and I will share that with you.
So how is capturing calmness different to teaching your dog to STAY? When you are training your dog to perform, your dog is focusing on the outcome or consequence and it is learning because you are reinforcing the behaviour. There is no emotion attached to this type of learning, meaning no hormones are playing a role.
When the dog is being conditioned to relax, there is no consequence or outcome that the dog is waiting on because you are returning to the dog when it is NOT expecting it so you are ultimately reinforcing the state of mind it is in, its emotional state rather than a skill. Whilst it is in that relaxed state, the brain releases feel good chemicals, hormones, into the system. These chemicals are critical when it comes to feeling calm and happy. In fact when you are revved up and excited, you are feeling the effects of adrenaline, the hormone responsible for fast action and arousal. What we are tapping into is actually the hormone responsible for that feeling of calm which is serotonin and oxytocin and a combination of others. If we can get these chemicals to make an appearance more often, then we will very likely end up with a dog that calms down a lot faster and can remain nice and calm for longer periods and in more arousing situations. It isn’t going to happen overnight but with lots of practice and patience, it can and will happen.
Okay so getting back to capturing calmness, let’s set the scene and tell you what YOU need to do before we even get started.
- You need to be calm, not in a hurry to go somewhere and dedicate at least 30 minutes to an hour to get the ball rolling.
- You need a quiet space, nowhere noisy and chaotic, kids under control, no other dogs around when starting out please.
- You need some treats but they do not need to be of high value as yes we are reinforcing the behaviour to a degree, the state of mind more importantly, but we don’t want the dog thinking of the food being delivered so the usual dog biscuits can be fine. Your dog pouch should not be involved in this exercise at all, remember we do not want the dog in ‘training mode’.
- Have a comfy mat in place to make it even more appealing.
- If you really want to go all out, some calming music, something classical or natural.
- Start your dog on a leash if you feel it will keep moving too much at the start of the exercise.
So we are now ready to go!
- If you have decided to place your dog on a leash, have the mat on the floor near you, ensure you are comfortable either sitting down or standing up initially and give your dog some room to move on the leash so no tight leashes please however, if your dog goes to the end of its leash, lock the thumb on it so it can go no further and just wait for it to settle again. Do not move around the house with it, anchor yourself and stay calm
- Now this is where the patience test comes into it because now you have to wait until your dog stops moving and it could take minutes, lots of them! There is to be no instruction to sit or stop or lie down, you are to remain neutral and not really look at the dog but instead, ‘feel’ the dog settling
- When your dog stops, stands still, sits down or even lies down, when it is NOT looking at you waiting for a treat, simply drop a dog biscuit calmly at its feet. There is no need to bridge or click here, no need to say much but you can whisper if you like, ‘good dog’
- Now if you started doing this while you were sitting down, now is the time to stand up and wait again as very likely your dog will have gotten up also and got a little excited from that change in movement. Again as soon as it settles and is NOT looking at you or expecting a biscuit, drop a biscuit calmly on the ground near its feet but wait for it to appear relaxed and preferably sitting down or lying down
- Continue this numerous times and your dog should start to sit or lie down quicker and possibly not even get back up. I suggest even taking note of the time so you can see if the dog is settling faster or if it is taking longer. This will give you an idea if things are working or not
- This would be the point where you could take the leash off or just let it go because soon we want to start moving away from the dog and continue to encourage it to remain calm
- If your dog is starting to choose to lie down instead of sit, start dropping a treat only when it lies down so we now encourage it to get more cosy and you no longer drop a treat for sitting or standing still. We are aiming for a default drop position to relax
- If at any point your dog begins to hover near you because it is waiting for a treat, walk away from it and ignore it until it stops thinking about the food. Remember capturing calmness is NOT about the food or you, it is about feeling relaxed and all you are doing is pointing that out to your dog!
- Now you can try to sit down in your chair again and wait it out until the dog settles while you are settled and remember, wait for it to look away and show no interest in you before you drop a treat near its feet. We want the dog to feel relaxed irrespective of whether you are sitting down, walking around, moving to another room, leaving the house, are occupied, etc. Continue this over a period and take note of the signs your dog displays when it is starting to relax
- By now you should have noticed the breathing has slowed down, the face is soft, the eyes appear sleepy, mouth is slightly open, posture is floppy, legs out to the side or back and more importantly, that huge inhale and exhale is seen as it really lets everything go. This is what we are aiming for, this is calmness!
Gradually over a few practice sessions, you start to get up again and walk around the room and very likely this might trigger your dog to get up again so you simply wait for it to go back to its mat, lie itself down and calm down again and then you walk past it and drop a treat for relaxing but once again it needs to occur when it is not expecting you to come back with a treat. Remember we are training the dog to relax, not by telling it to, we are simply capturing the moment it is relaxed and letting it know it is good to feel like that. I keep repeating this bit because we really want you to understand the difference between being told to stay still versus just feeling relaxed and opting to stay still because it feels great.
Eventually your dog will fall into a deep snooze and when you see this, you just quietly walk away!
Once this gets easier, you might like to add in a mild distraction such as another person, another person moving around, a child, another dog, etc. You need to gradually build it up so that the dog becomes conditioned to settle in more distracting circumstances.
We are looking into devising an actual program, a short course focusing on just capturing calmness with a small group of dogs so look out for this on both the website and the newsletter as we will notify everyone when we start. The aim will be to do a short course over four weeks where all we will do is reinforce the state of calmness and we will coach you as to when you drop that treat, what signs to look out for and also to reinforce your patience while we sit it out in the early stages of the program. More importantly, the dog will learn to feel relaxed in the presence of other dogs and people.
*****If your dog displays signs of hyperactivity, hyperventilation, excessive drooling, high arousal in general, inability to settle and fall into a deep sleep regularly both during the day or night, obsessive behaviours such as pacing and fence chasing, then your dog may actually be suffering from anxiety and poor impulse control. Whilst capturing calmness exercises can help induce relaxation, more intervention may be required if your dog is moderately anxious, so if your dog does display some of the signs mentioned above, please consider speaking to your us, your local veterinarian or Veterinary Behaviourist about it so we can tackle this issue first.
So with that, I shall let you go now so you can go and find your dog some zen!