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Relax on Cue: How to Help Your Dog Chill

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As a certified yoga instructor as well as a veterinary behavior technician, I have found many similarities between yoga in humans and relaxation cues in our pets. In humans, yoga has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and regulate the fight or flight response.

Animals do not have the same cognitive patterns as humans, so we can’t teach them mindfulness and breath control, but we can teach them to go to a specific location and give them a cue to relax when they are there.

When teaching a relax cue, we are rewarding the physical changes associated with relaxation and happiness, as well as the underlying physical states associated with relaxation. For animals this includes loose posture, jaws relaxed, head held gently at an angle or resting on the ground, eyes closing, and taking long, deep breaths.

Once animals can perform the behavior in a variety of situations and experiences, we can cue them to relax during stressful events such as panic with storms, departures, and veterinary visits. That can help them to feel more comfortable in the situation.

The shaping plans below explain how to use clicker training to teach your pet to go to a mat and how to break down the behavior of “relax.”  Finding a clicker trainer (KPA CTP = Karen Pryor Certified Training Partner) or a veterinary behavior technician (VTS-Behavior) in your location will be helpful in teaching these behaviors.

Teaching “Go to a Mat”

We will be focusing on shaping or molding the behavior of going to a specific location (mat).  Below is the shaping plan for communicating to the pet that the goal is to place all four paws on the mat. Click then Treat = C/T. Using a clicker isn’t required, though. Some dogs get excited when a clicker is in use, making it difficult for them to relax. If that’s the case with your dog or if you aren’t familiar with or prefer not to use clicker training, you can use a calm, soft word such as “Yes” or “Good” along with a treat to mark the behavior.

  • C/T head turn toward the mat
  • C/T look at the mat
  • C/T weight shift toward the mat
  • C/T walk toward the mat
  • C/T one paw on the mat
  • C/T two paws on the mat
  • C/T three paws on the mat
  • C/T all four paws on the mat

Use a specific mat or towel when teaching this behavior. The end goal will be to get animals to consistently put all four feet on the mat when the mat is placed on the ground. Because shaping involves a large amount of mental stimulation, keep training sessions short: 3 to 5 minutes.

Pick up the mat after training.

Teaching a Relaxation Cue

Once the animal offers the behavior of going to the mat in a tight loop of behavior, we will then raise the criteria to teach “Relax.” At this point the animal should consistently go to the mat when it is presented. Here are the next steps:

  • C/T for going to the mat and standing still for 1 second
  • C/T for going to the mat and standing still for 3 seconds
  • C/T for going to the mat and standing still for 1 second **

When working on teaching an animal to “hold” a behavior, vary the amount of time the animal needs to stay in position. By doing this, we can slowly increase duration of time on the mat without frustration.

  • C/T for sitting on the mat
  • C/T for lying on the mat
    • Contact with abdomen to the floor
  • C/T for hips shifting from one side to the other
    • C/T gradual stretching of the leg further away from the body
  • C/T head touching the ground
  • C/T deep breaths
  • C/T closed eyes

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Rachel Lees, an Elite Fear Free Certified Professional, is a veterinary technician specialist in behavior, a KPA certified training partner, and lead veterinary behavior technician at The Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. She loves helping people create and maintain a strong human-animal bond.

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