December 3, 2013

Relaxation Matters

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!

9 comments:

  1. It was the surprise of my life when Silas stayed on the mat while I opened the front door. Crazy!

    Our hardest things (so far, up to Day 12) were the 30 second stay, knocking, and the doorbell. I think we did Day 11 six or seven times, even though we worked on the doorbell some separately.

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    1. I've been starting to work up to the later tasks by touching and starting to close the dog gate between the kitchen and living room - I think this will help when we get to the door/doorbell.

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  2. So great, Lara. Miss Ruby is a smart, energetic girl--other traits you share! :) very proud of you both!

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  3. So how do you her to stay on the mat? What are the steps? I don't really need this as Blueberry is a pretty laid back dog - but it would be kind of cool to have her learn something new!

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    1. I used the clicker at first - click/treat for sniffing the mat, stepping on it, and eventually sitting and then laying down on it. Then I started feeding her pieces of kibble while she was laying down on it...slowly increasing the intervals between kibble. If she got off I would ignore her for a bit to see if she'd go back on her own (she often does) and if not I would remind her with the "go to your mat" cue. I know people will use it for somewhere besides a crate for their dog to go when they are, say, working in the kitchen or eating a meal. I think it's a great tool!

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  4. It's really great you're using the Relaxation Protocol! I've often thought it would be a great tool to use with my impulsive Fozzie, to help him learn more patience. But how do I get myself to have the patience to go through with it? :) Inspiring to hear of your progress with Ruby...I think I'll print out the protocol now to motivate myself to work on it!

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  5. I DID read this post when Jessica @ MyImperfectDog linked to it, and it's one that inspired me to kick it into gear. The interesting thing to me (so far, anyway) was starting them with the mat. They were both like.... uh? what? That delayed us on day 1. Cooper keeps. popping. up. But, we'll get there! Can't wait to see how you progress! (And, YEP! Sips of wine should absolutely be our positive reinforcement!)

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    1. Ruby is so excited when I get her mat out (a pink bath mat from the Dollar Store) that she grabs it from me and tries to jump on it while I'm holding it...not exactly conducive to relaxation but I love that she has such a positive association with it! We sometimes get the added distraction of the cat walking by while we're working, and I count that as a task with extra reward!

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