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Reactive Dog Care

Just Chill! How to Teach Your Dog to Relax

Many dogs love to go on road-trip and hiking adventures! But have you ever been at the trailhead with a dog who is whining, barking, or pulling at the leash in their excitement to get started? Or is your dog anxious and concerned about other people, cars, or dogs that they encounter on adventures?

Either way, teaching your dog the foundational skills of relaxation will make traveling and exploring with your dog a lot more enjoyable.

What does a relaxed dog look like?

The first step in helping your dog learn to relax is to identify relaxed behavior. If you haven’t already, I want to encourage you to read our post about stress signals in dogs.

Some stress signals, called calming signals, are signs that your dog is trying to calm themselves down or are settling after an episode of stress. These calming signals include behaviors like sneezing, sniffing, licking lips, yawning, or shaking off (like a wet dog). These signals should not be discouraged, as your dog is working on soothing themselves.

Other stress signals are signs that your dog is becoming tenser and aroused. These can include stiff body language, staring, whining, barking, shaking, raised hackles, and more.

As you begin to work on encouraging your dog to relax, try to reward behaviors that are the opposite of the non-calming stress signals.

  • If a tense, stiff dog is anxious or aroused, reward your dog for loose body language. This can mean a relaxed body while standing or even better a relaxed sit or down.
  • Staring can be a sign of stress (which we talk about in our post “How to Pass Other Dogs Calmly: Stop the Stare”). So reward your dog for being able to look away from something that is exciting (other dogs, squirrels, the trail you are about to start hiking on, etc).
  • Is your dog whining and barking, reward them when they are quiet.

You get the idea. Your dog will have an easier time learning what they are supposed to do rather than what they shouldn’t be doing.

Rewarding your dog for relaxed behavior should start in the house (or wherever your dog is most comfortable and least distracted). Find your dog’s favorite treats and start by rewarding your dog for calm behavior in their day-to-day life.

Give them a treat when they lay down on their dog bed. Reward them for sitting patiently while you open the door to let them outside.

As you start to reward these relaxed behaviors, remember that some of the stress signals 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, as those behaviors are also stress signals.

Still not sure where to start? Consider the following specific training exercises.

Teach Your Dog to take a Deep Breath

Did you know that you can teach your dog how to take a deep breath? You can! And just like people, taking a deep breath helps relieve tension and relax the body.

I’m sure you have all had an experience where you were getting worked up about something. Pausing and taking a deep breath may have helped you calm down.

You can even try it right now. Stop and take a deep breath in through your nose, hold it for a few seconds, then release it through your mouth letting the tension in your shoulders leave with your breathe. Feels nice right?

Before your start teaching your dog to take a deep breath, make sure that your dog can attend and pay attention to you. If you haven’t worked on teaching your dog to watch and defer to you, check out one of the blog posts listed below.

Dr. Karen L Overall is one of my favorite veterinary behaviorists and she has developed some amazing tools to help people help their dogs. And one of the techniques she has focused on as a foundational skill in teaching dogs to take a deep breath.

In this video that was posted to YouTube, Dr. Overall discusses in detail how to teach your dog to take a deep breath. The entire video is worth watching, but the embedded video starts with the discussion on how to teach your dog to take that deep breath.

If you aren’t interested in watching the video, I have listed the basic steps in this training exercise here.

Training Steps to 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 go back to the video by the fantastic Dr. Karen Overall and skip to about 6:39 for the steps of teaching dogs to take a deep breath.

Also like any type of training/behavior modification, remember to 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. Your dog will learn faster in short frequent sessions that remain fun for both of you.

Training Your Dog to Relax on a Mat

Another way to encourage relaxed behaviors is by training your dog to lay down in a specific location on cue. Many trainers will use a mat or rug for a dog to learn to place on.

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. It is part of teaching your dog how to control their impulses and wait. And (as we discussed above) it helps your dog know they should do when they are anxious/aroused, rather than just knowing what they shouldn’t do.

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.

Steps to Teaching Your Dog to Lay Quietly on a Mat

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 of 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 dog lay 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.

To watch an example of mat training, check out the video below. This video uses a dog bed as the mat.

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

Training the skills above will start in your house. But once your dog has learned these skills in a calm, distraction-free environment, it is time to take these skills into more challenging environments.

Can your dog take a deep breath or place on their mat in your backyard? At a campsite? At a trailhead parking lot?

Glia and Sasha place on an outdoor rug at a campsite during one of our road trips. Both were recently asked to place and you can see that they were watching intently for the forthcoming treat.

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 a 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.

And don’t forget that sometimes your dog will need breaks from stressful activities to relax. Cortisol levels can build up in the body! Just as a relaxing day at home feels so nice after a stressful week at work, your dog will benefit from taking time to decompress and de-stress at home in between days of advanced activity/training. 

Depending on how stressed your dog is, they may need a few days to stay quietly at home without any adventures. Or maybe they just need a few minutes to stand and sniff on the trail after an intense moment. Remember that sniffing is a calming stress signal for your dog and the act of sniffing can lower your dog’s heart rate, even while walking. Just check out this research from Dog Field Study.

Overall, teaching your active dog how to relax is an important life skill. So start working today to give your dog the skills he or she needs to decrease stress and be a relaxed and confident hiking companion.

One reply on “Just Chill! How to Teach Your Dog to Relax”

I am so excited to have discovered your blog. Yesterday I did a quick Google search of “gear for reactionary dogs” and you popped up right away! We adopted a rescue at the end of May and we love him, but quickly discovered he wasn’t as described. Turns out he has a seizure disorder and allergies. After properly medicating him, he seemed to become more fearful of other dogs and overtime of other people. I tried taking him to group training sessions because he’s only 2 years old, but we got kicked out because he couldn’t stop barking and jumping and was too stressed to attend. I paid for private sessions that were very expensive and honestly, besides teaching him to sit and lay down, which he got pretty quickly, I wasn’t seeing any progress or attempts being made to solve the problems he was having with being reactionary. It’s gotten worse and I absolutely have started to hate walking him now. So I’m going to buy the gear you mentioned, devour your content, and try to find him a trainer that will just target the behaviors we need to work on. He is a dream in the house, such a good boy. He also lives with a chiweenie and they get along great, so I don’t know why he is so fearful of all other dogs regardless of size. Thanks for all of the great content and ideas! I’m feeling more hopeful now.

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