If you only complete one training technique with your dog, make sure you conquer this ‘Calm Confidence’ training process, because it will be your best friend in many situations! If your dog can look to you for calm confidence in any situation, you will avoid many difficult behaviours.
Tranquility training – teaching your dog to be calm, quiet and confident, even in the face of distractions, fear and excitement – can be a wonderful training tool for all dogs, but is particularly beneficial in shaping the behaviour of naturally anxious or hyperactive dogs. It is sometimes called ‘Go to Place’ training, because we are teaching the dog to go to its place (a bed, mat or crate), and remain there in a calm, quiet and confident state, until released. The ‘focus’ element of this training is an essential skill when confronted with a situation creating fear or distraction, especially in public places.
Listed below are guidelines for a series of daily training exercises, which will take less than 10 minutes to complete. These tranquility exercises are the foundation of teaching ‘Calm Confidence’ behaviour (see separate sheet) and ‘Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning’ training (see separate sheet).
Depending on the dog, it may be more successful to start him on a leash (and head collar in the case of hyperactive dogs) even when training inside the home, then progress to off-leash training only in the final stages of each exercise. Always start the program inside the home, even if the dog’s problematic behaviors only occur outside the home. Once progression to outside training is achieved, maintain leash control until a 90+% success rate is achieved on leash, then complete each exercise with the dog on a long line, before finally removing the leash altogether.
One ten-minute session daily is essential, but two or three sessions daily is even better. If a dog routinely gets bored, distracted, agitated or anxious during these exercises, they can be broken down into two 5-minute sessions. The person with the most control over the pet should begin the training first, but all members in the household responsible for controlling the dog should complete the training program with the dog.
Some of the essential elements to ensure success include:
■ Find a quiet place in your home for initial training – a darkened, isolated room with no distractions. This way your dog will remain fully focused on you.
■ Ideally, use a small mat, bed or crate as a location guide to train your pet to settle and relax in a particular spot or ‘place’ (hence the term ‘place’ training).
- Using a mat, bed or crate will allow you to take this item to other locations where your pet may need to be calm.
- Having a reliable ‘go to place’ command is very helpful for a wide range of undesirable behaviors ranging, from obnoxious greeting behaviors, to anxiety and aggression situations.
- This technique can also be used in cases of separation anxiety for independence training – teaching a safe place to remain when alone (this is where a small collapsible soft crate is particularly valuable, as it resembles the instinctive ‘den’ of the wild dog, therefore providing a place of safety and protection).
■ In all of the exercises, the dog has to do a simple command (go to the ‘place’, sit or drop/down) and then remain in that position – in a tranquil, calm state – to gain the reward.
■ You may want to add in a key phrase like a gentle “sssshhhh”, “relax” or “easy” to teach the dog to associate relaxation with sitting/dropping down and staying put
- The goal is for the pet to be relaxed and calm.
- Relaxation is measured by watching the facial expressions and body postures of your pet; ears and tail should be relaxed and the body soft, loose and low.
- Relaxation is also indicated by slow breathing (not panting).
■ As you progress through the exercises, the handler will gradually start to engage in mild distractions during the command phase. The distractions will become greater only as the training progresses.
■ Remember that the handler throughout the exercise should give the dog verbal and visual direction – with voice and hand signals, remain calm and relaxed themselves (!!), and ensure the entire process is a good experience for the dog.
■ Remember to follow up every successful action with a timely “Yes!” to mark the desired behaviour, followed by a treat/reward to reinforce that behaviour. This is a critically important concept!
■ Do not attempt this training if the dog is already aroused (excitable or anxious/ aggressive). Wait until the dog is in a relatively normal (i.e. calm) state.
■ Non-compliance is ignored, not rewarded, and certainly not reprimanded or punished. Just turn away, take a breath, have a short (e.g. 30-second) break, and adjust the exercise to increase chances of success (make it easier), then try again. If the dog is too aroused, end the session and try again later or the next day.
■ Between each exercise, the dog should break the sit/drop by being releases and encouraged to get up and move away with some form of distraction, before being commanded to ‘go to place’ and sit/drop again. For example, the handler can release the dog and move to another spot in the room and call the dog to them, or lure the dog up and away from the ‘place’ with a toy or treat, ready for the next ‘go to place’ command.
■ The first round of these exercises should be done inside the house with minimal household distractions; children/other dogs should be confined elsewhere, it should be quiet, etc.
■ Do not progress to a higher level (an environment with a higher level of distractions) until a 90%+ success rate is achieved at the previous level. Level one should be in a very quiet, dark, familiar place. The second level should only be in slightly more distracting circumstances, such as in a busier room inside the home, and once quiet, calm compliance is achieved here, only then step up to a third level, (e.g. a secure yard), and a fourth level (e.g. the street), and a fifth level (e.g. dog park) etc. Rushing the process, or jumping levels, and expecting compliance will result in failure.
■ If the dog fails to be or remain calm and quiet, or even to ‘go to place’ in the first instance in the more difficult environment, you have proceeded too far/fast too soon, and the dog is probably confused. You need to take a big step back. Take more time at each level if this happens.
■ If you have begun this Calm Confidence training as a precursor to Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning, you must be particularly cautious not to proceed too fast. Once the dog has successfully completed these exercises in at least two, or preferably three different locations, you can progress to Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning the dog to the triggers/stimuli which are causing his anxiety or fear (see Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning sheet).
The following Calm Confidence training sessions are not intended as ‘one-session-to-be-completed-once-before-moving-onto-the-next-session’. They are stages of training, and may need to be attempted only in part if progress is not fast, or many times over, in some dogs – before progressing to the next session stage.
Be patient and read your dog carefully. Poor observation of your dog’s state of mind and putting too much pressure on him through a rushed training program will only exacerbate his anxiety and over-excitability, not resolve them.
Teaching Your Dog to be Calm and Confident through ‘Place’ and ‘Focus’ Training
Session One – developing the action
- Using a treat in front of the dog’s nose, lure him onto the mat/bed (or into the crate) with a treat, and, as soon as his front feet are on the mat, say “Yes!” and give a treat. Encourage or lead the dog back off the mat (or out of the crate) again.
- Repeat luring the dog onto the mat several times, and gradually build up to require all four feet being on the bed/mat (or inside the crate) before you say “Yes!” and give a treat.
- END OF LESSON
Session Two – adding the command ‘on your mat’
Revision: repeat the above steps a few times and, if the dog clearly remembers the previous exercise and is calm and compliant, progress to:
- Lure the dog onto the mat and, if compliant, add the command “on your mat” (or “in your crate”) just as he is stepping onto the mat, say “Yes!” and give a treat.
- Repeat luring the dog onto the mat several times with the command thrown in just as his feet go onto the mat, and again, build up to requiring all four feet being on the bed/mat (or inside the crate) before you say “Yes!” and give a treat.
- Repeat the process, but start giving the command a little earlier in the process, until you are saying it just before you start luring the dog on the mat. Be sure to say “Yes!” and give a treat every time the dog successfully gets onto the mat.
Take a break for a few minutes, then quickly repeat the last step before proceeding with:
- Start with the dog several feet from the bed. As you give the command – ‘on your mat’, throw a treat with a sweep of the arm onto the mat. As he goes to follow the treat and steps onto the mat, say “Yes!” and give him two additional treats.
- Repeat the process many times and then try the command with the arm action, but without actually throwing the treat onto the mat. If the dog steps onto the mat (whether chasing the treat that wasn’t thrown or in compliance to the command) say “Yes!” and give him five of his favourite treats (a jackpot) one after another (not all at the same time) and further increase the reinforcement event with a quiet game or extra tummy rub treat.
- END OF LESSON
This second session stage should be repeated many times until the dog is in no doubt as to what the command of “on your mat” (or “on your bed”, or “in your crate”) means.
Session Three – introducing the ‘sit’ and ‘release’
Revision: repeat the previous stages of sessions one and two for revision, to be sure the dog understands the process so far – of what ‘on your mat’ requires.
- Send the dog onto his mat with the ‘on your mat’ command, say “Yes!” and reward him with a treat
- When standing on the mat, command ‘sit’, and, when compliant, say “Yes!” and give a treat.
- Note: if your dog already has a responsive drop/down command, try this session process with the drop, as this is likely to increase your rate of progression. It is easier for a dog to break from a sit, so placing the pet down into a drop will increase success on remaining in position on the mat. If your dog does not have a good drop/down response, just use the sit command.
- Do not expect the dog to remain in the sit position. Within one to two seconds, say ‘Free!’ and allow him/encourage him to get up on his feet and off the mat again. [Important: do not allow the dog to get up of his own volition, before you have released him. You may need to gently hold him in the sit position until your release word “Free!’ is given (but only say ‘Free!’ and release him when he is calm and relaxed, not struggling against your hands)].
- Repeat many times until the dog is immediately compliant to the ‘sit’ command once on the bed, and does not spring straight back up again. Release him within one second of being commanded to sit. Do not hold him in an extended sit-stay yet. This comes later!
If your dog begins to see a pattern – that he is asked to go to his mat and then to sit – and if he does both actions on the one command of ‘on your mat’ (not needing to be commanded to sit – jackpot him! Give him five of his favourite treats one after another. This is exactly what we are aiming for! Make him understand that we are really happy with this progress
The best way to do this is to jackpot him with treats and then: END OF LESSON!
Session Four – introduce the ‘sit-stay’, through a ‘focus’ command
Revision: Repeat the previous stage to be sure the dog remembers that he is to sit when sent to his mat and not get up again until released.
- Command ‘on your bed’ (and ‘sit’ if necessary), then briefly hold a treat to your dog’s nose and, when he smells it, draw it slowly up to the bridge of your nose, so that his eyes follow it to your eyes. When he makes contact with your eyes say “Yes!’ and give him the treat
- Repeat four to ten times (a couple of minutes, maximum) without releasing him, but then say ‘Free!’ and let him get up and move off the mat for a break, before continuing.
- Repeat, and when he is definitely following the progression of the treat to your eyes, introduce the command ‘watch’ (or ‘look’) as you draw the treat up towards your face. Make sure your timing is accurate when you say ‘Yes!” and give him the treat – it must be the split second he makes contact with your eyes. Without releasing him (or letting him break from the sit position), repeat several times.
- After a particularly good ‘watch’ response, say ‘Free!’ to release the dog from the sit position. Take a break and have a gentle play or cuddle with the dog. Remember this is a tranquility training exercise so rough and excitable play is NOT on the agenda!
- (Note: this ‘focus’ exercise can be completed everywhere – not just on his bed. Beside you at the dinner table, when watching TV, on your lap, in the laundry, in the garden, and, eventually, in the street. The more you do this, the faster it will become a great training tool).
- Resume by repeating the whole process, but now prolong the ‘watch’ (or look) for two seconds – maintaining that eye contact – before saying “Yes!” and giving the treat. Get the dog up again for a break after a couple of minutes, and always only after a particularly good response to ‘look’.
- Resume by repeating the whole process, but now prolong the ‘watch’ (or look) for four or five seconds – maintaining that eye contact – before saying “Yes!” and giving the treat. Get the dog up again for a break after a couple of minutes, and always only after a particularly good response to ‘look’.
- END OF LESSON
Session Five – increasing the reliability of ‘place’, ‘sit-stay’, and ‘focus’ commands through introducing distractions
Revision: repeat the entire process from stage one to four, to be sure the dog understands the different commands so far introduced, including ‘on your mat’, ‘sit’, ‘watch,’ and ‘Free!”
We now increase the degree of difficulty by introducing variables.
- When holding the focus for five seconds, try moving your free hand (not the one holding the treat) to your chest and back down again, then slowly waving it around in the air, to see if the dog breaks eye the contact or breaks from the sit. It is okay to break eye contact initially so long as you can get it back again before you release him, but it is not okay if he breaks from the sit position. If he does, withhold the treat, but be fair! Introduce movement gradually!
- Increase movement in a variety of ways: stand up, step slightly sideways, step backwards half a step, move the treat slightly to the side and see if his eyes slide back to yours (we want him to focus on your eyes, not the treat). Always remember to say “Yes!” and reinforce his great efforts with a treat or even two if he succeeds on a particularly difficult step.
- Ultimately, you should be able to hold eye contact if you were to get up and change position within the room. For this I would jackpot and end the lesson.
- Remember, when introducing something new, do not expect the dog to hold eye contact for more than the basic level of one or two seconds. This is very important: when increasing the distractions, reduce your expectations of time to hold the contact/sit position
- Vary the time the pet remains in place from 3 to 10 seconds; vary the direction of your movement; go left then back, swivel and turn away one step and return, turn in a circle, or march in place; vary the distraction by clapping your hands softly two to three times
- Other distractions could include changing the room in which you are doing the training to one with a higher level of distractions – introduce another pet, a child, an adult moving around the room, play loud music, have the vacuum cleaner running…. Use your imagination to create a gradually increasing level of distractions.
- Continue to vary the amount of time the pet remains stationary, on the mat, in each step.
- Continue to vary the distractions, include jumping jacks (jump and land with legs apart while clapping hands overhead, then jump back again with legs together and arms by your sides), knock on furniture, jog in place, turn your back on the dog, etc.
- Ramp it up with movement and noise: walk away and go all wriggly and make silly, high pitched monster noises; or fall onto the floor and flap your limbs (this is a very difficult one for dogs to resist!)
- A difficult increase in difficulty involves going out of sight: walk away to the door, stop, go back again to reward the dog; walk towards the door, stop, step out of sight and pop straight back in sight again, and go back and reward the dog for staying in place. Gradually increase the amount of time out of sight by a second or two, then five to ten seconds, then thirty seconds etc, until you can stay out of sight for several minutes. This is very good training for dogs suffering from separation anxiety.
- After all of this has been completed in the original quiet, isolated training room, return to the very first session and repeat every stage in a different location. Progress will be achieved quickly, having been through the process previously, and you may be able to get right through all stages in the new location in just one session (but don’t have unrealistic expectations).
- Repeat with different family members handling the pet, but be sure to start from the first stage – in a quiet isolated room.
- All handlers conducting the training should gradually progress to busier, noisier rooms, then repeat the process in the quiet back yard, then progress to the noisy front yard, then to a quiet street or public place etc.
- The process culminates when you can successfully complete this Calm Confidence training in a busy street with many distractions, or a shopping precinct, or the on-leash dog park, and finally, progress to the off-leash dog park or beach.
When your dog can offer a reliable sit-stay in a public place (or other highly-charged situation), and maintain eye contact with you on the ‘watch’ command, you can use this to keep him focused on you whenever he is getting over-excited, anxious or aggressive. This may apply when the dog exhibits over-excitability behaviour when visitors arrive, when anxious about a large threatening dog passing by in the street, when aggressive every time the postman whizzes past on his bike, when barking at the lawn mower or vacuum cleaner, to calm him in the car if he is over-active or anxious, to reduce his aggression if people visit your caravan site… and many, many other daily situations.
Congratulations! You and you dog should now be able to handle pretty much any normal situation in our frenetic human society, with a calm and confident attitude.
Finally, be patient, take small steps, reinforce good responses and keep lessons short and sweet, and always finish each lesson on a good note. Most of all, have fun! Enjoy all your dog training sessions. If you are not enjoying it, then almost certainly your dog isn’t either, and this is likely to produce a poor result. Make it fun for both of you!
If you ever have any questions about this training program, don’t hesitate to contact us and ask for clarification or advice.