Training Dogs - Settle and Relaxation Training
Why should I teach my dog to settle?
Many behavior problems have a component of fear, anxiety or excessive arousal so that retraining cannot begin until a calm, relaxed state can be achieved on cue. Training should focus on both the behavioral response (sit, down, walk, stay on your mat) as well as the emotional state (calm, relaxed). In fact, until you can get your pet to focus and relax on cue in the absence of the stimuli that evoke anxiety or arousal, it is not practical to attempt to get your pet to relax in the presence of these stimuli.
Once the dog has learned to settle on cue, it should be possible to begin exposure to gradually more intense stimuli (see out handout on 'Behavior Modification - Desensitization and Counterconditioning'). The settle command could be used to achieve a focused response when the dog is overly excited or anxious such as when greeting family members, strangers or other animals. It can also be used when dogs become anxious as the owners prepare to depart or become overly excited when company arrives or when preparing for a walk.
How does settle training work?
Training your dog to respond to a verbal cue or command, or when it sees a visual cue, might be described as cue-response-reward or command-response-reward training. Generally the sequence is: to find a means of insuring that the pet will immediately and consistently exhibit the desired behavior; to reinforce the behavior; and then to add a cue prior to the behavior. Some of the behaviors that can be useful to place on command, especially for pets with behavior problems, are sit, down, heel, and go to your mat.
A good place to start is with a new set of cues that help both the pet and you to understand what behavior is desired. Rather than "sit", you might use a "watch", "steady", "focus" or "chill" command. Similarly, instead of "down", a "relax", "settle", or "SOFT" command might be considered (See our handout on 'Training Dogs – Handling and SOFT Exercises'). "Follow" or "heel" (see our handout on 'Training Dogs – Controlling Pulling on Walks') should be used for a calm, loose leash walk, and "go to your mat" should mean go settle down in your bed.
How do I get started?
Before you start training your dog, you must make sure your dog is sufficiently exercised and has an enriched daily routine (see our handout on 'Training Dogs – Enrichment, Predictability and Scheduling'). Your dog must have a daily routine that includes walk/play times, feeding, time playing alone, and sleeping times. Furthermore, your dog should know what behaviors earn him a reward (see our handout 'Training Dogs – Learn to Earn and Predictable Rewards'). Training a dog to settle and focus should begin in an environment where your dog is calm and there are minimal or no distractions. Although the sequence for training is to a) give the command, b) get the desired response (using one of the techniques described below), and c) give clear and immediate reinforcement, training cannot begin until you have a means by which the target behavior can be reliably and consistently achieved.
There are a variety of different methods by which the initial response can be achieved. In most cases food, a toy, or a visual target (which has been associated with favored food treats) can be used to lure the pet into the desired response. Alternately, a physical device such as a leash and head halter can be used to physically prompt the dog to display the target behavior, along with immediate relaxation of tension as soon as the desired response is exhibited. (See our 'Training Dogs – Head Halter Training' handout). Another option is reinforce the desired behavior when it is exhibited spontaneously and then to add a cue word just prior to the response (this technique is often used when training a pet to eliminate on cue). A SOFT relaxation exercise (See our handout) and TTouchTM (See our handout) can also be used to achieve a relaxed response. Food, affection, a favored toy or a clicker (See our 'Training Products for Dogs – Clicker and Target Training' handout) can all serve as rewards if they are consistently given immediately following the behavior. These rewards should be withheld except for training (See our handout on 'Training Dogs – Learn to Earn and Predictable Rewards'). Over time, the behavior can be gradually shaped for greater relaxation or longer duration.
How do I achieve a relaxed state?
Once the desired response is achieved, the goal of settle and relax training is to shape gradually more settled and relaxed responses. This can be accomplished by saving favored rewards exclusively for training and immediately reinforcing the pet for the desired response. With each subsequent training session, responses of gradually longer duration and of gradually increasing relaxation should be reinforced. You will need to focus on your dog's facial expressions, body postures and breathing in order to determine the pet's level of relaxation (e.g. sitting with one leg tucked under the body, relaxed facial muscles, breathing regularly and slowly), before giving rewards and proceeding to gradually more successful outcomes. Clicker training can be particularly effective for marking and reinforcing gradually more desirable increments of behavior. A leash and head halter can be used to insure success before release and reward. In order to achieve and maintain a calm response, the person doing the training must remain calm, relaxed and soft-spoken, and environment must be free of distractions. Remember, while you might be teaching the pet to sit/stay or down/stay, what you really want to emphasize is a relaxed emotional state.
Teaching "Look", "Watch me" or "Focus"
Teaching "Settle" in a down position
Teaching a settle location - e.g. go to your bed:
What other devices or techniques can be used to help me get my dog to relax on cue?
a) The head halter is an extremely effective tool for quickly and reliably achieving the initial behavior and for progressing rapidly to responses of longer duration and greater levels of relaxation. A pull on the leash and head halter, with or without the use of a cupped hand underneath the pets chin can pull the dog into a sit with eye contact for release and positive reinforcement. While releasing the head halter (negative reinforcement) immediately reinforces the behavior, the treat (positive reinforcement) will follow later (with gradually increasing the delay) is used for shaping the behavior. With further training the eye contact can be maintained for progressively longer intervals before reinforcing. Similarly the leash and head halter can be used to achieve a settled down response, with hind legs over to one side. A settled down of increasingly longer duration and greater relaxation can then be shaped with rewards. With the leash and head halter, the down position can be maintained until the desired outcome is achieved either by keeping a foot on the leash or by pulling gently upward as the pet begins to rise. The use of the head halter does not preclude the concurrent use of lure reward and clicker training techniques to insure a desirable outcome. Before using a head halter make sure your dog is well trained to accept and work with it (see our 'Training Dogs – Head Halter Training' and 'Behavior Management Products' handouts).
b) Physical Exercises.
Techniques that use physical contact can help to increase the enjoyment and decrease any fear associated with handling and restraint. In addition, they provide a means for achieving a relaxed state, which might then be used if the dog begins to get excited or aroused. While the physical contact and attention may provide sufficient reinforcement for some dogs, food treats can also be paired with handling to mark and reward the desirable response. TTouch and SOFT exercises are two physical / interactive exercises that are designed to help pets relax. While these are specific techniques, any physical handling that is associated with a positive outcome can be a valuable training exercise. In addition, by withholding affection when the pet solicits it, it increases its motivational value and usefulness as a reward. See our individual handouts that detail these exercises.
Physical exercises are intended to be used only with friendly, non-aggressive dogs. If you think your dog might become aggressive, do not begin without first discussing this with your behavior consultant. If your dog growls or attempts to bite, becomes fearful, or struggles excessively during these exercises, immediately discontinue them and seek the advice of a behaviorist or trainer.