Growing Calmness – Our Top Tips
Dedicate a Room to Calm
Picture this: It’s the end of a long day, you want to snuggle up on the sofa, perhaps with a glass of wine, but your dog has other ideas! Your dog has gone to fetch his favourite toy and he has placed it at your feet eagerly waiting for you to engage in a game. Sound familiar?
To help create calmness, rehearse what you want in a room dedicated to calm. Often this room is where you like to sit, chill, read a book or watch a movie. So, to help your dog, when you are in this room, do nothing that will lead to your dog thinking that it is the place that training, games or exciting things happen. Dogs are very clever at predicting what happens in particular environments, so if you train or play in the same space as where you wish your dog to also be calm, you can see why they might sometimes try to engage in a game with you – as that is what you sometimes do!
Now, we’re not saying that you have to totally ignore your dog when you are in your calm space! Absolutely go ahead and calmly massage your dog, interact and relax together! Think calm engagement rather than high excitement!
To really set the calming mood, we like to use oil diffusers with calming essential oils, these work on us and our dogs! And finally, absolutely train in your house but dedicate rooms for that away from your ‘calm’ space.
We often say ‘catch your dog doing something right’ and let them know! So in the context of creating calmness, when your dog is relaxed and semi-snoozing, calmly walk over to where they are mark with a calm ‘yes’ or ‘nice’ and place a piece of food down on their bed. What you are doing is capturing what you want and reinforcing it. We all know how reward based training works, right?! What you reward you ultimately get more of! It is important to look at creating calm as training, and some dogs needs to learn the art and skill of calm through training.
Now, what may happen after you have walked over and rewarded your dog for essentially doing nothing, is that they may get up. We often get asked; haven’t we just rewarded our dog for getting up? Think of it this way; you mark what you want and the food gets placed at the moment when your dog is doing nothing, so that is the bit that has been reinforced. If your dog is extremely sensitive to your movement, set their bed or yourself up where you can perhaps lean across and calmly place the piece of food down. Slowly build this skill, don’t over-do it to begin with as what you don’t want to create is a ping-pong dog!
Chewing & Kongs
Do you give your dog the opportunity to chew? Chewing is a great way to promote calmness. Chewing is something all dogs naturally desire to do, especially when they are young so we really are massive advocates for ensuring dogs have adequate time to chew (on things that are appropriate!).
We also love stuffed kongs to help promote calmness too, however, we want to share the steps we take when first introducing stuffed kongs:
- Start off with something your dog finds easy to get out, like kibble, for example.
- Then move to something squidgy, like mashed sweet potato or sardines. But don’t pack it too full!
- Once your dog is proficient at that level, increase the difficulty by packing more in the kong!
- Then finally when your dog is a pro at emptying a packed kong, try freezing it before giving it to your dog.
Increasing the level of difficultly gradually is crucial, if you make emptying the kong too hard before your dog is ready they will find it EXTREMELY frustrating. Extreme frustration is detrimental to the point of using a kong, after all, we are trying to promote calmness, right?! Build the tolerance to frustration of emptying a kong slowly and only move to the more advanced levels when your dog is ready.
Training Sessions – We all love training our dogs! It’s so super fun, isn’t it!
So how can training help with calmness? If all of your training sessions are high intensity, excitement and high arousal, think about mixing up your training sessions to include low arousal skills and games. Some dogs don’t need an awful lot of encouragement with upping arousal levels, as that is their natural disposition! So, for training sessions for dogs like this, work a lot on low arousal games like boundary games, stillness and duration behaviours.
Not only does what your train effect arousal, also the way you reward does too! If everything about your is energy up when you reward, that is where the arousal will go too – even if you are practising a low arousal game! This is one of the reasons we like to use a marker word rather than a clicker as you can change your tone of voice to either an exciting ‘yes’ or a calming ‘yes’ (or whatever your marker word is!) depending on whether it is an arousal up or arousal down game.
Also think about the way you deliver the reward. When working on lowering arousal within your training and promoting stillness and calmness, deliver the reward slowly with a deliberate nature. Don’t throw it in at your dog! Everything about you, from saying your marker word, to delivering the reward should be all about being CALM! The type of energy you bring to your training sessions is super key.
Some people make the error in thinking that lots of exercise will cure the challenge of calming a dog down! After all, they are tired, so they are calm….aren’t they??? Not necessarily! Don’t get us wrong, exercise is essential and all part of the balance of ensuring our dog’s have fulfilled lives, but exercise shouldn’t be seen as THE solution to creating calmness.
In fact, in order to tire a dog out, if the only type of exercise that is on offer is high intensity, go-go-go, running at top speed, chasing/playing with other dogs, fetching a ball repeatedly, this will lead to a dog being in a state of high arousal with adrenaline pumping through their bodies. If they are in this state constantly, this can leave a dog mentally WIRED and with a very full stress bucket!!! They may give you the illusion that they are calm, but really they are just physically exhausted. OK, so you might be thinking well, being physically exhausted is just as good as being genuinely calm, but look at it this way; you are essentially training an athlete! The amount of high energy-burning exercise might be enough for your dog today, but as they get fitter it won’t be enough and you’ll need to offer more and go for longer! Do you have the time for that?! Plus that intense type of continuous exercise isn’t good on your dog’s body.
So, when thinking about exercise, it is essential not to depend on it to create a calm dog and also vary what you do and don’t be afraid to ditch the walk that day and work on calmness games at home. Of course, your dog can enjoy a game of fetch or playing with another dog from time to time, but mix in other types exercise, so that your dog receives well rounded activities. For example: swimming, on-leash road walks, the chance to sniff and investigate. Variety is key!
Is your dog receiving adequate rest? Dogs need lots of chance to rest PROPERLY. If you live in a busy household, your dog may get the opportunity to sleep here and there, but do they enjoy uninterrupted rest?
As part of your calmness training believe it or not, proper rest will help! Dogs that are tired can be in a bad head space and make bad decisions.
Set up a quiet place for your dog to settle and sleep away from the action; a pen, a crate or a room for example. Your dog NEEDS the time to rest away from everything and everyone!
Check out more of our Thursday training blogs HERE.
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