If you teach your pup nothing else during his life, teach him this exercise and you will reduce your dog’s stress and attention-seeking behaviours by noticeable amounts. Your dog will learn a skill that will help him relax his body, rather than getting excited or demanding when you are not paying attention to him.
We are aiming to:
Settling down can become an alternative to activities such as whining, jumping, barking, pawing, pacing, stealing items, dropping the ball in your lap repeatedly, and other annoying, reactive, or anxious behaviours!
Over time this exercise empowers your dog with the ability to calm himself down and enjoy the benefit of relaxing and recuperating his body.
Settle Down also teaches your dog independence from always being told what to do, and in doing so, builds his confidence when he is able to figure things out on his own.
The final benefit of training Settle Down is that it teaches your dog to relax when he is on a lead. The beginning of this exercise is always practiced on lead, teaching your dog to calm down even when he has some restrictions—for example while you are taking him for a walk on lead.
You will need:
Get the Behaviour Started
Step 1 - Setup
Put your dog outside, in another room, or in a crate for a few minutes while you get everything ready. Place the mat in front of the chair or sofa where you will be sitting, and have it close enough to you that you don’t have to stretch over your dog to drop the rewards on the mat.
After you place your mat down, scatter about ten treats on the surface. These are for your dog to find when you bring him back into the room during the first couple of sessions. This will ensure that your dog’s initial impression of the mat will be a strong one, and that will have a lasting impact as you continue this training. The first two sessions should be completed within an eight hour period of time.
After these first couple of sessions, you will only use treats after your dog has started calming himself or lying down and not plant them on the mat as you did when you first started this exercise.
Step 2 - lntroduce dog to the mat
Go and get your dog, put him on his lead, and then calmly walk back to the area where you placed the mat and allow your dog to find the treats you left.
As your dog discovers the food, sit down in the chair and give him enough of the lead to stand up, sit down, turn, and lie down, but no more. By restricting your dog, he will learn to relax while on lead and it will prevent him from wandering away and finding other things in the area that are more interesting than what you are doing together.
Drop a few pieces of the food on the mat while your dog is busy sniffing around to see if he missed any of the original treats. As your dog is eating those, start to drop one treat at a time, about every one to two seconds around his front paws, also on the mat. Your dog should be getting very interested in what might be making you drop food at his feet! It’s important that you drop the treats and not hand them to your dog as that can make many dogs too excited. The idea is to get your dog’s head down and more relaxed, not to stare at you.
Step 3 - Reward for less intense behaviours
In the early stage of training you are looking for any less intense behaviours than when you first started. Examples of less intense behaviours might be gentle sniffing around the area, sitting, turning his head away, or yawning. Reward each of these behaviours by dropping one piece of food at a time as close to your dog’s front feet as possible.
Step 4 - Begin to disengage from your dog
Sit back slightly, or turn to the side so you are not looming over your dog, making it clear that you do not intend to interact with him. You want your dog to learn how to calm himself without input or direction from you. The equation for your dog should be, “When my human ignores me, I should calm down and relax because it pays off really well.“
Step 5 - Avoid rewarding the dog for staring at you
Now that your dog is figuring out there is something special about being on the mat, try to avoid dropping treats if your dog is staring at you. This is asking a bit more of your dog, as you are now waiting for your dog to relax slightly more, rather than his trying to “make” you give him treats by staring at you. Rewarding when he diverts his attention away from you, helps reinforce that it is the act of simply relaxing that will be rewarded.
With that in mind, drop treats when your dog turns, sniffs the ground, or looks away. This will teach him that looking away or sniffing around for the food is what earns the reward, not staring at you.
Step 6 - SIow rewards and wait for sits or downs
Once you get to the point where your dog seems to understand that less activity is what is causing you to be a treat dispenser for him (usually after at least fifteen treats), you can now begin to reward only when your dog is sitting. Some dogs will lay down at this point. Since this is the end goal of this exercise, skip to Step 7 if this happens. In either event, you want your dog to learn how to calm himself, not have you tell him.
Now slow the pace of your rewards. At this point, most dogs will sit while waiting for a treat. Make sure you reward your dog once he begins to sit. When he is sitting voluntarily on a consistent basis, slow the pace of rewards once again and watch what happens. Many dogs will then choose to lie down. If he does, reward him immediately for that behaviour. Once he chooses to lie down, stop rewarding him for just standing or sitting on the mat.
Step 7 - Randomise rewards and end session
Once your dog has started lying down on the mat during your training sessions, and seems to be more relaxed, you can be more random with the timing of the food rewards. One time you can do a couple of fast ones, then put a few seconds between the next one, then go back to the rapid fire treats, and so forth. It’s important to keep your dog guessing as to when the next treat will happen, so he learns to relax even more, in hopes that you will drop the next reward.
Just don’t hold out too long in these early stages. You don’t want your dog to worry or become anxious about why you haven't rewarded him in a while as long as he is engaging in a calm behaviour.
After five to ten minutes of training say “All done” and be sure to resist engaging with your dog until you have put everything away, and even then, you should remain quiet and composed so as not to get him worked up all over again. It’s important your dog understands that training will stop when you say, “All done,” so he is a little disappointed you are no longer going to engage with him. This helps ensure that the next time you bring out the mat he will be more willing to focus and find out what makes you drop the treats. Remove the lead and put everything up until the next time, remembering that session two should be completed within an eight hour period to have the maximum impact on your dog.
Keep in Mind
You are well on your way to teaching your dog how to calm himself down. However, if at any time your dog gets up from the down position after this level of progress, take a deep breath, turn your head away and stop dropping food. Let your dog process this and figure out it was the lying down that was making you drop the treats.
It only takes a couple of times for most dogs to have the light bulb go on and decide this is very easy to do and it pays off big!
Building the Behaviour
Step 8 - Relax onto one hip
As you progress, think about advancing the behaviour a little each time you come back and train. The next goal might be for your dog to shift his weight onto one hip, which is a much more relaxed state for dogs (some dogs will lie with their legs splayed like a frog as they relax and that is okay as well). After you reward the initial down, then slow the rewards again to the more random two to five second range until you start to see your dog shift his weight, even just a little, then speed up the rewards again so your dog can arrive at the conclusion that shifting his weight makes you drop the rewards faster again.
As with each piece of this exercise, don’t go back and reward previously achieved behaviours. Only reward your dog when he is on his hip if that is what he has offered.
Stay at this level for a couple of days until you have reduced the reinforcement rate to the random reward schedule. Your dog should stay for two to five second intervals between rewards.
Step 9 - Reward for relaxed signs
Once you have your dog on his hip, you can then wait for an even more relaxed state by rewarding your dog for looking away from you or lowering his head and resting it on the mat. To achieve this, you will slow down your rewards again until you see your dogs head turn or dip toward the mat, and then speed up the reinforcements again once he has offered one of those postures. By taking deep breaths or yawning several times you will help your dog relax faster, so be sure to add that to your training. When your dog can lay down on a hip and not stare, you are ready to add new locations and distractions.
Raising the Bar
You can start to raise the bar by adding more time between treats, distractions, or a new location. Only add one of these components at a time or it might be confusing for your dog .
Step 10 - Practice in new locations
Each time you move to a new location, go faster with your rewards for the first ten to fifteen seconds after your dog has laid down, and then slow it down again. Be sure to practice for a couple of days in each new location before moving to the next one.
The more you practice this exercise, the more your dog will understand the finished behaviour: “When my human sits down and ignores me, I lay down, and great things happen.”
Be sure to practice this training in many different areas of your home before you take it on the road. Do not try locations outside your home until your dog has started lying clown on his hip and not looking at you.
Step 11 - Add distractions
Once you think your dog can do the complete exercise just about anywhere in the house, try doing it in the back garden. As the locations become more difficult, especially those that come with environmental distractions such as people or other dogs, be sure to speed up your rewards in the early stages. Act as if your dog just started the part where he is lying down so he gets a high rate of reinforcement in the beginning and then wait for the hip movement and finally looking away. Once you have the completed behaviour, move to the variable rate of reinforcement after you see that he understands you are doing the same exercise, just in a different place. This usually will happen swiftly if you have trained it well in the original quiet locations.
Step 12 - Practice without a mat
After your dog has learned to settle down with ease, do it without the mat occasionally so he learns that when he relaxes, rewards happen even without the visual cue of the mat. Back this up by rewarding your dog any time he chooses to relax and you will create a dog who knows how to calm himself down and has a default behaviour of lying down when he is not sure what to do. Only do this, however, after your dog thoroughly knows the exercise with the mat. If your dog offers this behaviour randomly without the mat, do acknowledge it with quiet praise, or an occasional treat, but don’t reward the same way you do in training or your dog may become anxious about offering the behaviour all the time and that is not the goal.
Step 13 - Switching to off-lead
To further this training, switch to not using a lead and practice around the house by rewarding your dog for lying on the mat when you bring it out. Switching to off-lead is a great way to teach clingy dogs how to distance themselves from their humans—just put the mat a little farther away each time and get really good at tossing treats to your dog at a distance. It won’t take long for your clingy dog to “want” to be away from you.
Step 14 - Practice while standing in place
Finally, practice this exercise on-lead again, but now do it while you stand in place, and without the mat. This will teach your dog how to be calm on a lead when you are standing—a great skill for any dog when out in public.
Practice standing with your dog on lead by starting at the beginning, as if your dog has never done this before, then progress ahead at your dog’s pace. If he gets it quickly, move along fast, but if it takes your dog some time to understand that you are doing a similar training exercise, that’s okay, just go at his pace. Continue until you are getting the default down again, but now you are standing with your dog on his lead. This will help your dog learn to relax and lie down when you are out in public and have him on a lead.
Be sure to practice or generalise this behaviour all over the house before taking it on the road, just as you did with the other parts of this exercise.
Other uses for Settle Down
If your dog begs at the table, teach him that relaxing on his mat is much easier than putting all the effort into begging. Begin by placing the mat near the chair where you usually sit at the table. In the beginning, do this when you are not eating a meal so it’s easier for your dog. After a couple of rounds without a meal on the table, add a meal with only you (add family members later) and reward him for lying on the mat while you eat. When your dog is able to remain on the mat while you eat, graduate to having a family meal, if that’s the goal. You will still be working with your dog on lead at this point, but as you will see, the lead will not be needed once you have trained this well.
If you would like your dog to stay out of a certain area, such as the kitchen, when you are working, place his mat at the edge of the kitchen or just inside an adjacent room and reward any time he is on his mat, but ignore him if he gets off. Your dog will quickly learn that being on the mat, even when you are working in the kitchen, will pay off, and he will figure out that settling down on the mat is much easier than bothering you!