Is calm really just another behaviour?

What is the most difficult thing to teach our dogs? Coming back or a great recall? While I do agree that this is a difficult behaviour, I do think teaching calm is much more difficult.

Calm mum – calm puppies

Being calm is not the same as a cued ‘sit stay’ or ‘down stay’. Without becoming too airy fairy: Calm is also not just the absence of arousal, heightened state of alert or stress.

For dogs calm means that they are content, happy, and relaxed. They are able to lie on their bed and watch the world go by without barking at every noise or every thing that moves. Calm is a state of mind.

It is normal for puppies to only have two speeds: One is go, go, go and then they crash and go to sleep. For very young puppies calm is not really on the agenda, but we can (and should) start teaching relaxation at a young age. Like everything else it has be age specific and for puppies a few minutes of a relaxing massage or a two second ‘sit stay’ might be all we can expect.

I meet a lot of dogs who are bored out of their minds at home in the backyard or dogs who spend most of their day alone. They either develop separation distress related behaviours such as vocalization, escape or destructive behaviours or over attachment and attention seeking behaviours as soon as the owner is home. For dogs who have no job and not enough company calm is an impossible state of mind

We get dogs as companions and then leave them home alone all day and when we come home we want them to be calm. For most dogs this is too big of an ask!

There are a lot of different ways to provide incentive and an environment that promotes calm.  There are also a lot of different protocols to teach calm. In my opinion it is best to use a holistic approach.

Firstly and probably most important, we have to provide adequate outlets for their energy and cater to their social need for companionship. They need physical exercise, brain stimulation and company. If these needs are not met we cannot expect them to be calm.

At the coffee shop!

A lot of dogs love to go out for a walk twice a day. This is not just for physical exercise but also to keep them socially well adjusted. Socialization, like everything else, requires practice. If they are not exposed to new things in a positive way and on an ongoing basis their social skills will deteriorate very quickly. However, too much physical exercise, especially high arousal activities like the dog park or incessant ball chasing, just increase excitement and high arousal levels.

While most dog owners are aware of their dogs physical exercise needs,   they sometimes do not provide adequate mental stimulation. Many dogs, especially working breeds are ‘run into the ground’ every day, spend a lot of time at the dog park but they are never calm or relaxed. They are in a heightened state of alert and arousal at all times because they do not get enough down time and mental exercise.

For their mental exercise provide a few short but fun training sessions every day. Try teaching them a new trick like closing the door and use at least some of their food for enrichment.

Dogs are social animals, they are not made for being left alone for extended periods of time. I do understand that most of us have to work and leave their dogs home alone. Most dogs cope with that if they are not left for excessive periods of time. However, and I repeat myself, if you work full time, have a busy social life and three children under the age of six years, a puppy or dog might not fit your lifestyle unless you are prepared to make some major changes. Crating your dog while you are at work is not an option. Crate time, especially during the day, should be limited to a maximum of a couple of hours. If you are absent most of the day, look into a good day care, dog walkers or swop time with neighbors.

At daycare pic Maxine www.caninekindergarten.com.au

Once we have catered to their mental and physical needs we can start teaching behaviours that lead to calm.

Teach a go to mat and relax: This can start out as a ‘drop stay’ exercise, in the beginning facilitate with a chew. The dog learns to happily chew on the bed and relax.

Teach impulse control: Typical exercises for this are look at me, hand target, wait, or lie down. The one I like most is ‘Doggie Zen’ (sorry I really cannot remember where I got it from) but for me it works like this: You ask your dog to sit, show the dog the treat, hold your hand with the treat at arm length away from your eyes at eye level and wait until the dog takes the eyes off the treat and looks at you. You have to be quiet. If your dog jumps up calmly put your hand with the treat behind your back and start again. Once you get eye contact, click or say yes and reward. In the beginning you reward for every glance! That is not a cued behaviour but a relaxation exercise.

Capture calm: Interestingly most owners miss their dog’s calm behaviour. A typical scenario is the dog calm on her bed and getting ignored. However, as soon as she gets up there is a reaction from the owners. By mistake the getting up is rewarded while calm is ignored. This tells the dog being calm is not worth doing. We need to change our approach and capture calm. While this is not training per se, it should be a major part of our relaxation protocol. When you see your dog in a relaxed state of mind calmly with a low, gentle voice tell him he is a good dog. Do not use treats, do not move towards him. Otherwise he might go right back into working mode. Dogs do no come pre programmed to know what we want, so we have to let them know.

A gentle massage or listening to music such as Through a Dog’s Ear are other ways of promoting calm and relaxation.

Lazy afternoon at home

In my opinion calm is more than just a behaviour and while we can and should teach preliminary behaviours such as ‘go to mat’, ‘doggie Zen’, ‘wait’, ‘pay attention’ or ‘lie down’ calm is a state of mind. Our dogs can only reach this state of mind if their physical, mental and social needs are met and if they live in an environment that promotes calmness

It is a bit like focus, which is a state of mind that cannot be reached with training of attention cues such as look at me or touch only but depends on the relationship and connection we have with our dogs. But this is a topic for another blog!

 

First published by the Pet Professional Guild.

Beware of the Behaviour Chains

Isn’t it frustrating, we try to train your dog not to jump up but it gets worse? It is the ‘behaviour chain syndrome’.

Sitting pretty
Sitting pretty

We train behaviour chains all the time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by mistake. Behaviour chains can be great and useful or useless, ineffective or even dangerous.

There are lot of behaviour chains that are useful, like a ‘go to mat’ cue, ‘come when called and let me touch your collar’, a formal recall or retrieve in obedience. We often train these using back chaining.

This simply means we teach the last behaviour first and make it very rewarding. The last behaviour then becomes a reinforcer for the one that precedes it. This can be an invaluable tool.

The ‘go to mat’ cue is taught by starting with being on the mat. This calm behaviour is rewarded heavily with chews such as pigs’ ears or roo tails. When the dog loves being on the mat, we start sending to the mat, staying very close, and then gradually increase the distance. Very quickly we are able to send the dog from further and further away to her mat or bed. Once this is reliably on cue (a success rate of about 80 %), we can start introducing distractions, including the door bell and visitors. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog calmly went to her bed chewing her favourite treat when visitors arrive? The perfect dog! If you want to be fancy you can actually transfer the cue from your verbal ‘go to mat’ to the door bell. How impressive would that be? To do this, ring the door bell, immediately followed by the verbal cue, reinforce and repeat. Once the door bell becomes the cue, we then can omit our verbal cue.

On the other hand we tend to train behaviour chains by mistake when dealing with unwanted behaviours.

A classic example for this is a dog who jumps up. The dog jumps up, we ask for a sit, the dog sits and gets a treat. The dog learns to jump up, then sit, and get a reward. That kind of approach will not decrease the jumping but most likely make it worse. You are teaching a behaviour chain: “jump – sit – get treat’. The dog will not learn to sit without jumping.

A similar scenario is loose leash walking. This goes along the lines: The dog pulls on the leash, the owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead; owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead, etc etc. This will never teach the dog to walk on a loose leash! It teaches the dog to pull, come back into position and then pull again. All we are teaching is a yo-yo action.

In both instances the dog performs the unwanted behaviour first, then the one we want (and we think we are rewarding it) but we cannot get rid of the unwanted one!

The solution is to teach the behaviour you want first by using a lure and practice in different environments and reward generously; making sure the dog ‘understands’ the cue in a lot of different contexts and situations. We need a long and generous history of reinforcement for the wanted behaviour. We then have to manage carefully and set the dog up for success.

 

Going back to the jumping up: First we teach the sit in many different environments and reward generously, then and only then we go back to the context where the dog is likely to jump and get READY! If the dog approaches, we ask for a sit BEFORE she jumps and reward.

If the dog jumped up, we take a deep breath (yes we made a mistake) wait for a sit and reward. We do not cue the sit. The dog needs to find out what gets her the treat. But do not yell or push the dog down, this just might be the game the dog was waiting for. If we manage carefully we should get a reliable sit for greeting very quickly.

For loose leash walking, we use a similar set up. First teach the position, start with the traditional ‘heel position’. Dogs find that easier than just a loose leash. Get the dog to do a step, reward, then two, three, four steps. Start in a very low distraction environment like your back yard.  It is important to have a very high reinforcement rate but at the same time increase the number of steps until you reward very quickly. Once the dog gets it, gradually introduce distractions. When the dog walks nicely in that position we can start to relax criterion and eventually will have a dog who nicely walks on a loose leash.

Loose leash walking!
Loose leash walking!

Another common ineffective behaviour chain is to ask for a sit when the dog comes back, especially in the early training stages. This is not an effective way of teaching a reliable recall. In pet dog training most owners just want the dog to come back but it seems many are having trouble teaching it and most dogs find the environment much more rewarding than the owner. One reason is the notion that the dog has to sit when he comes back. I have seen many dogs happily running to the owner, only to be told to sit. And many dogs then seem to say: Not with me! And run off and in the future avoid coming back.

Coming back should be taught in such a way that the dog comes running really fast towards the owner, close enough for the owner to touch the collar and later hold it. This has two benefits, we know we can get our hands on the dog and in the case of an emergency hang on to them.  We first teach the collar touch and then move away gradually and rewarding for a fast approach. This is a behaviour chain for reliable recalls with some added safety.

Full speed recall
Full speed recall

Asking for a sit in the early stages of training might work at home and in low distractive environments but outside of that we need much more value for the coming back. If we ask for a sit in we might inadvertently poison the come cue!

There is nothing wrong with behaviour chains but make sure you are teaching the right ones.

 

First posted by Pet Professional Guild.