When you and others think about dog training, typically what comes to mind is teaching your teaching your dog to sit, lay down, come when called, stay in position, walk on a loose leash and other active behaviors. Yet teaching your dog to settle is a valuable lesson.
It is easy to assume that since your dog will go to a comfortable spot and nap when he is exhausted, that he knows how to turn off and settle. However, that is not the same as your dog or puppy being able to lay down and chill in certain contexts or environments – like when you are talking to a guest, cooking, sitting in a park, or watching other dogs or kids play.
Training Your Dog To Lay Down And Stay VS Teaching Your Dog To Settle
Those are different behaviors.
In an active stay, the dog is laying down and holding that position until released to do something else. What that dog is released to do will have an impact on the emotional state of the dog while in position. Remember that what comes AFTER a behavior affects not only the future strength of that behavior, but also the reflexive, conditioned emotional response (CER) that becomes associated with that behavior. Dog sports competitors will often use different cues and different release markers for predictability, arousal management, and readiness.
Ooh, I’m realizing that sounds kind of complicated. Think of it this way. Whether you know the result of getting to your destination will mean arriving to your favorite concert (or pickleball game in my case) on time or will mean arriving at a dreaded family reunion will more than likely affect the speed you drive to get there.
By the way, a release marker is typically a distinct sound that indicates to the learner, “Yep, you just did what I wanted you to do. Awesome!”, and also indicates, “Now it is time to stop whatever behavior you were doing and start doing something else.”
Some examples of release markers in dog training include:
GET IT for grabbing a toy or getting a treat on the ground (active)
TUG for beginning a tug game (active)
BALL for running to the ball (active)
GOOD for treat being brought to the dog (calm) – ok, this marker is not actually telling the dog to move but just that the dog did something amazing
On the other hand, I interpret settling as laying down, relaxing, watching the world go by, and even falling asleep. It is a skill that I teach and encourage with dogs of all ages from puppyhood through adulthood. It can be taught on a mat or other place, or just in contexts (such as, ‘when I sit at a table in a coffee shop, then you settle at my feet’).
There are so many benefits to teaching your dog how to settle
Here are a few.
Settling can help reduce stress and help your dog’s body/mind to decompress. This is especially great for adolescent dogs or dogs experiencing anxiety, fear or a tendency toward over arousal. Think about how breathing exercises and meditation help you in difficult situations.
Settling is safer for both of you in certain situations if your dog can relax and settle rather than increase arousal, heartrate, alertness, inappropriate behaviors. Having the ability to settle and relax voluntarily teaches self-regulation of arousal and energy.
You and your dog both learn to stay connected and attentive to each other. Focus can improve. The ability to learn and listen can improve.
Teaching Your Dog To Settle
Several well known strategies for teaching settle include Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and Suzanne Clothier’s Really Real Relaxation Protocol. There are a lot of steps in Dr. Overall’s Protocol.
How I tend to teach it is more like Suzanne Clothier’s Protocol.
I like to teach it by shaping small steps toward the final behavior. It is helpful to begin teaching in a quiet environment and after your dog has had mental/physical exercise
I begin sitting in a chair. The dog is on a six foot leash – not to hold him down but to prevent him from saying, ‘Bleh, this is SO boring! I am going to go find something else that is way more fun to do.”
Everything about my body language speaks calm. My body posture. My voice. The way I deliver treats.
In the beginning, I’ll lure the dog into a laying down position (remember, this is NOT a down stay) and then will move the treat on the ground toward a side of the dog. This causes most dogs to shift their weight onto their back hip.
I’ll feed about ten treats, placing each treat on the floor in between the front legs. Then I’ll start to slow down treat delivery.
If the dog gets up (which often happens early in this training), I’ll remain calm and persist in luring the dog back down into laying down position with back hip roll over. Then feed treats again, on the ground between the front legs.
Over time, I’ll be slowing down treats and watching for more signs of the dog relaxing. I’ll be watching for slower tail wags, calmer breather, relaxed muscles, head may even begin lowering to the ground.
It can take time in the beginning. The more you practice, the better the skill. Then you can bring the lesson to other locations – in an environment will your dog will be most likely to succeed.
Below are some videos of me training dogs and puppies to settle.
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