Teaching Calm

Ranger did not know that he was being trained today.  It’s now after dinner and he is nosing around at me wagging his tail saying “Hey!  It’s training time!” But, poor thing, we’re actually already done.

Today he started learning Doggy Zen.

Doggy Zen is a really nice little state of mind that keeps your dog calm and settled even in the face of distractions.

I trained my Collie to “Play Dead” so that little kids could come pet her without being nosed or flailed upon by her “rub my tummy” legs.  We were at the park on Sunday and Ranger flailed his own legs around a little when being petted by some children, so it reminded me that I have not taught this to Ranger yet.  So now he is going to learn to find his Zen.

We did a couple of little exercises, neither of which are definitive of Doggy Zen, but both of which work towards the same concept.  The specifics can be adjusted to your needs.

In one, I had Ranger lie on his bed, and I rewarded him intermittently for calm behavior, particularly, putting his head down and relaxing on his bed.

Here’s the Before:

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And the After:

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If you are really bored, this video gives a better display of the process.  It involves a lot of Patience and Waiting.

Now this video is kind of like watching paint dry, but it gets the point across.  It was a little frustrating to record though, because Ranger snoozed along quite nicely most of the time, but stared at the phone whenever I actually tried to make a recording.  We did this for several minutes while I read a book and watched the baby – multi-tasking!

Next, I had Ranger come over and flop next to me.

In this video, we are working on a few things simultaneously.  I’ll explain each.

First, we are building positive associations with the baby.  She is making funny noises and flopping around, but Ranger is getting soothing scritches.  Babies are not scary or stressful!  This is preventative classical conditioning – Ranger has absolutely no issues with the baby so far, and we are going to actively train him to stay that way instead of just assuming he will never be annoyed or frightened by her as she changes so rapidly over the next few months.

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Second, I am actively pairing his Doggy Zen relaxation cue – “Settle” – with calm, soothing petting and on occasion with a little food reward.   Eventually, I will be able to give him the cue in order to elicit relaxation.

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Third, I am working on conditioning his emotional response to my choice of reinforcement method.

Confused?  Ok – How you deliver a treat or reward to your dog can influence your dog’s emotional state.

When I am training active behaviors, I use a happy, upbeat, high-pitched “Good boy!!” and fast treat delivery to help keep Ranger bouncy and motivated.  However, if Ranger is chilled out in Doggy Zen I don’t want him getting excited and bouncing around when I tell him he has earned his treat, or while I am getting it for him.

To avoid this, I am moving my hand slowly to give him a treat (after the first one, oops!) and saying “Gooood boooy” in a lower, more soothing voice than when I am training him to Heel.

When I use the word this way in the future, the “Goood booy” that tells Ranger he has earned a reward will keep him settled even though he knows it means a treat is coming because it has been associated with calm, settled behavior.  The slow, direct delivery will keep him from orienting to the fast motion of my hand or trying to snap at or chase a treat.

Here’s a look at this second exercise:

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of how you teach a dog how to be calm and achieve Doggy Zen.  I’m going to use this to help Ranger relax around other dogs, to serve as a default behavior for being petted by children, to help Ranger calm down in the kitchen, and for many other things as well, I am sure.  It can also strengthen a long-term stay since it puts your dog in Standby mode instead of Alert mode.  Needless to say I love this concept and I hope you can apply it to your dog as well!

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