Why Capture Calmness:
Some dogs are calm, chill and relaxed most of the time. It seems that their default is to relax and stay calm. For other dogs, reaching a state of calmness is harder to attain and not their go to behavior. Capturing calmness is key for dogs who are more hyper, high energy and not able to teach themselves to relax. It’s important for every dog to learn calm behaviors for a variety of reasons like going to a cafe patio, when you guests in the home, or are trying to speak with someone while your dog is on leash.
Calming behaviors can also help with stress responses in dogs. Teaching them to be calm, can assist in helping them feel less anxious, it can help with mild separation anxiety (for moderate or severe separation anxiety, see a professional who specializes in this training) and it can help your dog feel more content, relaxed and happy.
It’s difficult to “Train calmness” so I choose to teach my clients how to capture it. Capturing a behavior is simply rewarding it when the dog does it voluntarily, without you asking for it. By observing and rewarding the behavior you want to see, you capture that moment for the dog so they begin to understand what you want. By capturing and rewarding calmness, you teach your dog how to calm themselves and how to enjoy being calmer.
What Defines Calmness?
Calmness can be difficult to define, because it may vary from person to person or dog to dog. However, I define calmness as any behavior where your dog is not over aroused, and is able to casually observe what is going on around them without becoming over stimulated or hyper-aroused. It’s important to decide on what behavior you would like to see when your dog is calm, so you will be consistent in rewarding it and your dog will be better able to understand.
I suggest that you capture the calmness when your dog is in a down position. I suggest this for a couple of reasons, one it’s easy to see and two, dogs tend to be more relaxed naturally when they are in a down position. It’s easy for them to make the connection to relaxing and being in that position.
The key is that your dog cannot be focused on any food or treats you have and that they are truly relaxed and calm. This is different than asking them for a stay. When we ask a dog for a stay, we are implying that we will release them from that stay, they can be very over aroused and still hold a stay. We are seeking to help our dogs find a state of calmness and to enjoy bing calm and relaxed.
How do You Capture Calmness?
As mentioned earlier, capturing the behavior is important because we cannot tell a dog to be calm expect that they will know what to do! Calmness is not natural for all dogs, but all dogs benefit from periods of calmness. There are a few things we can do to help our dogs find a state of calm relaxation and enjoy it.
The easiest and most common way though is to catch your dogs relaxing and being calm and reward this. All dogs rest at some point, they lie down, snuggle up to us, or just chill out in a sunny spot on the floor. When you see your dog in this state, very calm and relaxed, without saying anything, walk over to them and place a treat on the floor between their paws and walk away. This rewards the calm behavior.
Initially, your dog may get up and follow you (you just let them know you have tasty treats), when this happens, just ignore them and go about your day. When they are calm and relaxed (and not thinking about the treats you may have), then you can reward them again by putting the treats between their paws. Do this whenever you catch your dog in a truly calm and relaxed state and soon, they will begin to enjoy being calmer.
Once your dog is starting to enjoy being in a calmer, more relaxed state, then we can move on to teaching this as a default behavior.
Teaching a Default Behavior
Once you are able to capture your dog being calm and relaxed, you can start to teach this as a default behavior. A default behavior is just what your dog will do when you are not focused on them and they are on a leash. It’s a nice way to have your dog stay calm when you are out in public, or when guests are in your home. Instead of having your dog jump and pull towards other people, or try to sniff and pace while you are at a cafe patio, you teach them to be calm by default.
To do this, start in your home with no distractions. Have some treats ready to go, but do not show them to your dog. Put your dog on leash and go sit down, keeping the dogs leash short enough that they cannot get into anything, but long enough so they can choose to lie down. That’s it, sit down and wait. You should not engage your dog or ask for anything at all. Soon, your dog will lie down on their own, when they do, place a few treats on the floor between their paws. If they get up, the treats stop until they lie down again.
One word of caution though- just because your dog is in the down position, that does not mean they are relaxed. If your dog lies down and stares at you, expecting a treat, you will not be rewarding calmness, but focus if you offer a treat. For this exercise, you need to wait until your dog is actually calm and relaxed. I often tell pet parents to place the treat down when the dog is not looking at them to reinforce this. Remember that you want to reinforce the state of mind for your dog, not just a down behavior.
Once your dog can comfortably and reliably relax inside the house (remember to practice in every room), move it outside to the yard, then maybe try a quiet park setting. Slowly increase the distractions for your dog until they are ready to relax on a cafe patio with you. This may be a quick process for some dogs, and much longer for others, don’t rush it and allow your dog to set the pace.
Teaching a dog to find enjoyment in being calm can take some time, especially for higher energy or hyper dogs, but all dogs benefit from learning how to have periods of calmness. The easiest way to train your dog to be calmer is to capture the behavior, then train it as a default behavior.
Capturing calmness is not meant to take a high energy dog and make them a couch potato, a dogs energy level is part of who they are! However, capturing calmness will help your dog relax when they need to and will teach them to be comfortable in a calm, relaxed state of mind. All dogs need times when they can shut their brains down for a bit and just relax.