The “Art of Doing Nothing” is a funny type of training, and when I tell my clients we are about to spend the majority of their session doing and saying nothing I am usually greeted with a look of confusion and dismay.
Do you have a dog who is comfortable in their own skin. Happy to trot along on walks, hardly pulls. When you stop to chat they either busy themselves by sniffing the ground or they sit patiently and wait for you.
Can you take your dog to social events, pubs, cafes etc and you hardly know they’re there?
If yes....Well congratulations, this blog ISN’T for you! lol
This blog is for the dog owner with the overly stimulated dog, the puller, the barker, the nervous, the reactive.
Most clients will come to me and say the same thing, “He’s so calm and such a different dog at home, I just don't understand why he's Jeckle and hyde”.
Well that is because the stimulation is very low at home. They know where they are, they have their routine, they are comfortable. This may change when guests come over, or there’s a knock at the door, but most of the time they are the perfect pooch in their own home environment.
If your dog is anxious at home, has severe separation anxiety etc, then carry on reading this will help and give you a start dealing with elements of it, but you will need more specific help with separation anxiety.
Training your dog to perform the “Art of Doing Nothing” is often a skill we miss:
When our puppies are young they are so busy all the time, they are investigating, learning, chewing, playing. We use different methods to relax our puppies. We give them Kong’s, Chew bones, Licky Mats, toys etc. They busy themselves and then fall asleep.
If we do not give them things to stimulate them we run the risk of them looking for diversion where they shouldn’t; chewing your furniture, stealing your shoes and biting your ankles etc.
This is all a right of passage that puppies must go through.
You'll probably go to classes and learn how to train your puppy to do all the essentials, you do everything right.
Everything you are training them requires stimulation to keep them interested and focused, using Cue’s, Markers and Reward which is great, and fun for you and your puppy.
At this point we get peace when they’re asleep and that seems fair enough.
So why does it seem like something went wrong?
Puppy starts to grow up and we stick to this pattern, but now they are not sleeping as much, they are going to more places with you, they’ve learnt to chase balls and toys, play with other dogs and, when lucky enough, to chase squirrels and rabbits.
The world starts to change everything was new and had no negativity to it. All dogs and people were friends and interesting. Maybe they enter a fear stage, maybe a super playful stage that boarders on play aggression, maybe they create an obsession with the ball.
They may have had a negative experience with a dog or a scare in some other way and this is now a trigger. You may not even have noticed, it was so small, but it made a big impact on your dog.
Perhaps they start to really pull on the lead.
Lunge at people, things and dogs. Sometimes that is accompanied by barking and worse with snapping reactivity.
We start to make statements, ask ourselves a number of questions, “Whats wrong with my dog”, “What have I done wrong”, “Will this get worse”, “I’m not enjoying walks anymore”, “my dog’s behaviour is affecting my life”, “I can’t take my dog anywhere”, “Do I need to think about rehoming my dog”.
This is particularly common in adolescent and young adult dogs.
It's not too late to help our dogs.
Firstly what we need to do is teach our dogs to be at peace “Do Nothing”. Reducing the stimulation they feel in all environments.
Fear, excitement, anxiety all are signs and symptoms of over stimulation. We need to help our dogs to reduce their reaction to stimulations. To trust that you are in control and feel safe and happy to relax.
Let’s assume that your dog comes home and chills out:
We will start the training in your garden (if you don’t have a garden, then find a really quiet place outside where you’re unlikely to meet anyone).
Take your dog out into the garden, have your treat bag and I recommend a clicker.
Clickers are not easy to use to start with but if you are able to use them then they reduce the stimulation that comes from your voice.
If you have never used a clicker, you can use your marker word “Yes” or “Good” but make sure you use it really calmly.
With your dog on a lead, pull up a chair and sit down. Say nothing to your dog, do not look at your dog, do not touch your dog, just sit and wait.
You may come across some confusion, whining, pacing, perhaps a little bark etc. Please ignore this, if you say anything, look at your dog, or touch them you are inadvertently re-enforcing the behaviour and when your dog is board, stressed, or anxious they will use this to get your attention. Being in your own garden makes this a lot easier, in public you run the risk of feeling embarrassed and trying to calm the situation.
Don’t ask your dog to do anything, wait for them to get into a resting position like a sit or even better a down, once they have done this click or mark and put a treat between their paws. You can click and treat a couple of times here to keep your dog enjoying the reward. Still don’t speak to them (except your Marker word if not using the clicker).
Toss a treat a little distance so that your dog gets up but don’t say a word, no marker or click. Wait…. when your dog rests again click and reward by the paws. Repeat over and over until your dog returns and gets straight into the down.
You can very gently add a cue now as your dog starts to take the resting position.
I use “Relax”, you might like the word “Settle”.
As your dog is flopping or moving into the down gently say "Relax" as the belly hits the floor click and reward. Hold for a few seconds repeat the gentle cue then click and reward, take some time to increase the duration that your dog holds the position in-between clicks and treats.
Repeat the whole process and increase the duration.
Do a few of these set ups so that your dog feels really comfy relaxing in the garden with the distraction of the outside sounds but not of any oncoming triggers.
The garden is a very low threshold area:
Threshold is the line between feeling calm “I can cope” to the moment where you pass the line and are stressed or over stimulated “I can’t cope”.
As we increase the challenges in our training we still want to try and stay below threshold.
Once the garden is a lovely stress free environment and our pup is happy to relax, not needing to play or be touched or have your attention at all you can increase the challenge by having someone there with you.
Perhaps sit and chat with your partner, child, or friend and see if you dog can still relax. If they struggle ask your “Assistant” to also sit quietly and ignore your dog until they are comfortable with this new set up. Then add more to the environment with talking and light movements.
Do you know a quiet location, or a time of day that a location is quiet, not a lot of foot traffic? I recommend trying in the morning either before the school run or after, and late at night. This will keep the distractions to a minimal so that you can keep control of the environment to a certain extent.
You'll need at least 20 minutes but you can build this up as you go.
So to begin out in a stimulating environment:
Go for a little walk with your dog so that they can do their business.
Now find a place for you to sit down comfortably e.g. a park bench.
Put your clicker in your hand and have your treats to hand.
Do not use a packet of treats, you’ll want to use a treat bag or at least your pocket, we don’t want the packet to be the marker and get your dogs attention.
Once your dog is relaxed and lying down, click and treat. Wait… If they get up again to look around pay no attention just wait for them to settle again.
If your cue “Relax” or “Settle” is already strong you can try it here, but if the new environment means that dog can’t concentrate just wait for them to settle and click and reward. You can build back up to using your cue.
Occasionally we are going to get new distractions, People, Bikes, Children and dogs etc. When your dog acknowledges the distraction click to get their attention, try not to talk to your dog as this will be stimulating. You should win the attention of your dog with the click and they will turn to look at you, reward.
They may look straight back so repeat the click and reward again when they look at you. If they look back, and the distraction is moving away, give your dog a few seconds to see if they look back at you without a prompt and if they do click and reward, we are now clicking their good choice of looking back at us.
If they don’t look to you after a beat or two click. We really want our dogs to perform this voluntarily which is why we eventually move the click to being the marker instead of the distracter.
If the distraction is moving towards you:
Firstly ask is this a trigger?
A trigger is something that pushes our dog over the threshold on sight, a man, a dog, a car etc.
If the object is a trigger you will want to cue your dog “Lets go” and walk away from the situation, you want to try and keep your dog below their threshold and a trigger will be too much at this stage. If you can move to a comfortable distance that your dog can cope with, toss some treats into the grass or on the floor to encourage them to put their head down and not to focus on the trigger.
Keep doing this until the trigger has passed and then put the treats away.
By moving your dog before they are triggered and bark, lunge or do any of their previous learnt coping behaviours you are teaching your dog to trust you, you will take them to a place of safety and they don’t need to use their unwanted behaviour to move the trigger away.
By staying as close as we can to the trigger and giving our dog treats we are making seeing the, previously over stimulating trigger, a pleasurable experience. In time we can decrease the distance, until we can happily pass the trigger with no reaction.
If the distraction isn’t a trigger, just a distraction and is coming towards you, keep your dog focused on you by asking for a “Look at me” clicking and rewarding and continue until the distraction has moved. Once they have gone return to ignoring your dog so to encourage them to relax, once they do lie down you can click and reward.
The treats going away once the distraction has gone will mean that seeing a distraction will cause your dog to give you their full attention so they can take advantage of all the yummy treats which will disappear when the distraction has gone.
You will want to do multiple set up’s like this over the coming weeks.
1 or 2 will not fix an unwanted behaviour.
From now on I would recommend starting a calming session before you even start your walk. Place the lead on and wait for your dog to be calm before you open the door. If your dog is overly excited at the start, sit down and allow your dog to settle. When they do calm don’t speak, click, reward and then stand up and take the lead.
Leave your house and stand still until your dog again has calmed. If they start to pull, you got it, stand still and wait for calm.
Now that you have been repeating this technique you may feel a bit braver, take someone with you and chat while sitting in the park, go to the same spot at busier times.
Pop to an outdoor pub (choose a place thats not too busy to start). Go into town, sit in a cafe, go to family events.
Don’t run before you can walk but pretty quickly your dog will learn to relax in most situations. If you push them too far too fast you’ll be back to square one.
This will take longer for their triggers so be extra patient with those and don’t force your dog to face his fears. Take him to a comfy distance and create good experiences, until you can finally get closer.
Remember your dog doesn’t have to say hello to every Tom, Dick or FIDO!