|The hip-bump...we love the hip-bump.|
Today marks four months with my Little Rubes. I have learned so much about her personality over this third-of-a-year, but we are only just beginning our relationship! One of the things that became readily apparent as I got to know Ruby was that she had a difficult time relaxing. Being part Border Collie, she is hyper-vigilant to her surroundings - those pretty amber-colored eyes and over-sized ears don't miss a thing. I try to tell her it isn't her job to worry so much (I'm quite the worrier myself so it's no wonder I ended up with a dog who shares this trait), but she doesn't often believe me. I knew that encouraging calm behavior was going to be key in making progress together and in creating a happier home for Ruby.
When I first recognized signs of Ruby's reactivity, I nearly overdosed on information. I ordered every book I could get my hands on and started following many of your fine blogs. I watched YouTube videos and followed positive reinforcement trainers on Facebook. I can't remember exactly where I first read about mat work, but when I saw a little pink bath mat at the Dollar Tree, I figured we might as well get started! I loved the idea that once the dog associates the mat as a safe and quiet place to be, it becomes a portable haven for them. Ruby picked up "go to your mat" almost immediately, with the help of the trusty clicker and some of her favorite treats. She was soon sitting and then laying down and remaining there quite contentedly with a steady rate of reinforcement. I started utilizing mat-training sessions while I was preparing the cat's food, folding laundry, or working in the kitchen. It's a wonderful way to multi-task and get your dog used to activities going on around her, with her only job being "do nothing."
Ruby can now fairly reliably stay on her mat while I unload the dishwasher, receiving a piece of kibble currency every few plates or glasses. A few times recently, she has even resisted the temptation of my little cat, Nina, hurrying out of the room in front of her! She sometimes gets up to get a drink of water or sniff around, and I generally just ignore her until she returns to the mat. She's figured out that this is where the good stuff happens, and she gets visibly excited when she sees me get her little pink rectangle out, sometimes trying to jump onto it before it's on the floor!
When my trainer suggested that we study the Relaxation Protocol, I was immediately on board. We already had a great foundation with the mat work, and I am the type of person who loves a detailed and goal-oriented assignment. The Relaxation Protocol is a specific list of "tasks" (which are really tasks for you while your dog's job is, again, to do nothing) set up in blocks of increasing difficulty. The idea is for the dog to practice impulse control and self-restraint in a variety of circumstances. What I really like about the Relaxation Protocol is its flexibility - you can certainly break any challenging tasks into easier steps, and when you master everything in one room of the house, you move to another room, and eventually outside! It is a progressive system with quantifiable results, and helps you become more in tune with your dog's subtle signals - you will perfect your timing as you discover what your dog does just before you lose their attention.
Ruby and I took about a week to successfully complete Day 1 - the counting aloud was especially difficult for her as she seemed to think that talking meant that something was expected of her. We eventually conquered it by breaking the steps down even smaller - counting only to five and fifteen instead of ten and twenty. Ruby aced Day 2 on the first try - I was surprised that the jogging in place didn't cause her to jump up! That is the beauty of this exercise - you gain unexpected insights into what distractions are the hardest for the dog to ignore, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment when they are able to remain calm. The dog, meanwhile, gains confidence in itself and trust in you.
Here is a great introduction to mat work from the Pawsitive Dawgs blog - it might just be the perfect new activity to engage you and your four-footed companion as we enter these cold winter months and spend more time indoors!