Helping Your Dog Learn to Relax: Step 2 in Reducing Reactive Behaviors on Trail


Is your dog reactive? Do you want to take him or her hiking, but your dog’s reactive behaviors are too embarrassing and frustrating to deal with? Then this article is for you.

Hiking with a reactive dog is definitely possible. And it can even be enjoyable. But it does take a little more work and effort on your part compared to people hiking without a reactive dog.

Since reactive dogs are really just normal dogs who over-react to a stimulus (or what reactive dog people call a “trigger”), training a reactive dog to hike with you without overreacting involves a lot of work on helping your dog learn to relax.

This post is dedicated to teaching your dog the foundations of relaxation that will help them succeed in modifying their responses to triggers on the trail.

Just getting started?

If you are just started on behavior modification protocols with your reactive dog, I recommend that you start with the following blog posts on this blog:

If you are ready to begin working on relaxation techniques with your dog, keep reading.

Relaxation and Why Its Important

It may seem fairly obvious that reactive behaviors are the opposite of relaxed behaviors. What may be less intuitive, is that it is much easier to teach a dog what to do than it is to teach a dog what not to do.

Think of it this way. Imagine a scenario where someone invites you over to their house for dinner. You approach the table, intending to sit down for the meal. As you reach for your chair, they so “uh-uh, no.”

You pause. Do they not want you to sit down? You reach for the chair again.

“Don’t sit down,” they say. You might stare at them, confused. Well, what do they want from you?

Now imagine a second scenario. You are reaching for your chair and your host says, “That chair is broken. Please sit in this one.”

Oh, that makes sense. You can sit in a different chair instead. It was much easier for you to respond to a request to sit in a different chair than it was for you to figure out what to do when asked not to sit in the first chair.

This is a simplified scenario. But it helps illustrate the point. If you think about the emotions involved, you may also be able to relate to the mild anxiety that the first situation evokes. Being unsure of the appropriate social response only worsens anxiety. Since most reactive dogs are already anxious, scolding your dog without telling them what to do instead can worsen reactive behaviors.

Another example that can be more directly applied to the emotions of a dog-reactive dog is a kid who is fighting at school. Telling a child not to fight when they are upset is not very effective. Instead of simply being told not to hit others, that child needs to be taught how to relax, take a deep breath, count to ten, and engage in conflict resolution behaviors.

Your reactive dog needs very similar skills. So let’s start with the basics. In teaching the skills below, you are reinforcing behaviors that are incompatible with reactivity. You are also helping your dog learn how to calm themselves so that they can be in a better space mentally to learn new non-reactive behaviors.

Relaxation Techniques and Behaviors for Dogs

Reward Relaxed Body Language

Throughout your day with your dog, pay attention to their body language. You can develop a foundation of relaxed and calm behavior by capturing relaxed behavior on a day to day basis.

Reward your dog when he or she lays down. Reward them when they are sleeping. Reward them when they take a deep breath and settle after turning away from something exciting.

Once you start capturing the behaviors you want, you can also begin encouraging your dog to hold relaxed postures for longer periods of time. Asking for a sit-stay or down-stay and rewarding your dog for patiently waiting is another way to reinforce calm and relaxed behavior.

Laying flat on their side is a nice relaxed position for a dog. Although she looks like she is napping in this picture, Glia and I were actually actively training when this photo was snapped. I asked her to move into this position and rewarded her for holding this pose calmly while I took the photo.

Make sure you only reward relaxed behaviors. Some signs of anxiety can be subtle. Make sure your dog has loose and relaxed body language before offering a reward. Do not reward stiff body language and ignore pushy attention-seeking behavior (such as whining, staring, barking, etc).

For some specific training exercises, consider teaching your dog to take a deep breath on cue and working on mat training.

Teaching Your Dog to Take a Deep Breath

In order to begin teaching your dog to take a deep breath, you will need a quiet room, your dog, and some delicious treats.

1. Hold a treat in your hand and ask your dog to sit in front of you.

2. Slowly move the treat back and forth so that your dog sees the treat in your hand.

3. Hold the treat up to your face to encourage your dog to look at you calmly.

4. As soon as your dog’s face starts to relax, give them the treat.

Repeat these steps as needed. Until your dog is calmly attending to you.

5. Next, ask your dog to hold their breath by moving the treat towards your dog and watching for their nostrils to flare. (At first, your dog may try to take the treat as it comes closer, but wait for your dog to take that deep breath before releasing the treat from your hand.)

6. As soon as your dog’s nostrils are round and flared, give them the treat.

7. Slowly work up to longer breaths by delaying administration of the treat. You can also add a verbal cue to go with the hand signal at this point.

If this is hard for you to visualize. Don’t worry. It was for me at first too. So here is a video from the fantastic Dr. Karen Overall to help you visualize how training your dog to take a deep breath works. Skip to about 4:33 for the section on relaxation in dogs and to 6:39 for the steps of teaching dogs to take a deep breath.

Like any type of training/behavior modification, remember work in short frequent sessions, rather than one long session. You do not want to set a schedule you can’t keep or that is burdensome to your dog.

Mat Training

Another way to encourage relaxed behaviors is by training your dog to learn to relax in one place via mat training. The goal of training this skill is to have a dog who can go to a mat, lay down, and wait for input on command.

Sure, you probably won’t hike with a mat, but practicing this skill at home, in the backyard, or at a campsite, will help your dog work on self-relaxation and impulse control. Both of which are skills that can help with relaxation in all areas of your dog’s life.

To train your dog to lay quietly on a mat, first find a mat. This can be a dog bed, a rug, a yoga mat, or whatever works as a comfortable place for your dog to lay down. You want the mat to be large enough that your dog can fit his or her entire body on the mat. Additionally, a non-skid bottom is recommended so that the mat doesn’t slide while your dog is walking on it.

Once you have a mat selected you can begin training.

Please note, the steps below can be broken up into multiple small training sessions to keep it fun and interesting for both you.

1. Bring the mat out and reward your dog for any interest in the mat. For example, if your dog sniffs the mat, give her a treat.

2. If your dog steps on the mat, give her extra treats.

3. Once your dog learns that stepping on the mat gets her rewards, begin rewarding when more than one paw is on the mat.

*Note: you may have to call your dog away from the mat periodically in order to get them off of it so that they can return to the mat for you to reward again.

4. Once your dog has learned that you want all four paws on the mat, you can ask for and reward a down on the mat.

*Note: when asking for a down on the mat, you are not necessarily asking for a dog obedience type down, where the dog lays down with both hind legs tucked up underneath them. Since you are ultimately hoping to encourage as much relaxation as possible, having your down in a style where one of his hips touches the mat is a more relaxed posture. Reward this type of down on the mat even more than a traditional “down” position.

5. If your dog stays in a down stay on the mat for a significant period of time, intermittently offer treats while they are on the mat and use a release word (such as “free” or “all done”) to let them know that they can get off the mat and come to you for another treat.

6. At this point, reward them extra if they go back to the mat on their own. Bonus points if they lay down on the mat without being asked.

7. Here you can begin adding in a command to pair with laying down on the mat. We use “on your mat” for Glia and “place” for Sasha to indicate that we would like them to place on their mat. (Each dog has a different mat so they know where to go.)

8. As your dog becomes more and more reliable at placing on the mat, begin to increase the length of time you ask your dog to remain on the mat before you release them.

9. You can also start adding distractions for your dog while they are laying on the mat. Walk away or around your dog, walk to the door, hold a toy in your hands, or any other distraction, and see if your dog will hold their place on the mat. If they get up and come to you, ask them to place again, reward them for placing and decrease the distraction until they can successfully stay in place on the mat. If your dog stays on the mat despite the distraction, bring treats back to your dog and reward them! Then release them.

10. Once your dog is a champion at placing on her mat at home with distractions, take the mat to new places and start working on a reliable place on a mat outside of the house.

For some videos of how mat training works, check out the two YouTube videos below. The first is from VetStreet. The second is from Journey Dog Training, and is part of series of youtube videos where they work through the steps in Dr. Karen Overalls relaxation training protocol.

The Whole Dog Journal also has a good step by step article on mat training your dog: https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/training/mat-training-tips/

Taking Your Dog’s Relaxation Skills with on Your Next Hike

No matter what your dog’s triggers for reactivity are, all dogs can benefit from relaxation training on the trail.

Many dogs get amped up even driving into the parking lot for a hike. So consider asking your dog to look at you and take a deep breath before you get out of the car.

Having your dog sit before you open the car door is good deferential behavior to reinforce. And make sure your dog waits for a release word before getting out of the car. A dog that bolts out of a car can quickly create a dangerous situation. Your dog should be able to sit in the car and wait for his or her leash to be attached before being released from the car.

Once out of the car, asking for another deferential sit and a deep breath before you start hiking can help start your dog’s hike off in a more relaxed mind frame. And remember to reward any relaxed body language your dog offers on the trail.

Relaxed behaviors to reward on the trail may include:

  • Loose leash walking
  • Your dog looking up and making brief eye contact with you (with a soft relaxed facial expression)
  • Sitting calmly next to you if you stop to pick up after your dog or to take a picture.
  • Sitting or laying down while you wait for another dog or person to pass/cross the trail.

Your dog might not be able to perform all of these behaviors on the trail right away, but with time and plenty of reinforcement for relaxed behaviors, your dog should be able to do all of the above without whining, barking, staring or other signs of anxiety or over-stimulation.

Behavior modification and training often happen in baby steps and there may be periods of regression. But with persistence and consistency, most dogs can become wonderful hiking companions.

Overall, teaching your active reactive dog how to relax is an important life skill. Since the body language of relaxation is opposite that of anxiety and reactivity, in a single moment, a relaxed dog cannot also be a reactive dog. So start working today to give your dog the skills he or she needs to be a relaxed and confident hiking companion.

Happy Hiking,

Kate, Sasha, and Glia

One thought on “Helping Your Dog Learn to Relax: Step 2 in Reducing Reactive Behaviors on Trail

  1. I loved this! I have a dog who loves people and races up and jumps on everyone. I have done some relaxation techniques, but I love the thought of teaching her to take a deep breath! I’ll start today!

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