Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Training Tuesday: Relaxation Update
The main thing Maisy and I are working on right now is relaxing on her mat, and after reviewing my recent posts on the topic, I have to say I’m amazed by how this endeavor has evolved. We started out by doing the relaxation protocol, which went fairly well; we got all the way up to day 5 of the protocol. Still, Maisy was working, not relaxing, so I decided to try something I called day zero, which was basically just duration work on the mat with no tasks or distractions. Unfortunately, Maisy was still working, and I ended my last post wondering how I could change the picture so that Maisy would understand that she should just relax.
I ended up changing two things: the location of the mat, and the reward for being calm. Together, this has made a pretty huge difference in how our relaxation sessions are going, so I’m pretty excited to tell you about our progress.
The first change I made was to move the mat from the floor to the couch next to me. This was an easy decision, mostly because I had no idea what else to use as a mat. We’d already used different types of objects as a mat before, which meant that she’d already been introduced to the idea that lying on any mat-type object is a cue to work. But Maisy was already choosing to relax next to me on the couch in the evenings, and since we’ve never done any training on the couch, it seemed like a natural choice. After all, the entire association with lying on the couch is one of relaxation.
The second change was the way I’m rewarding her calm behavior. Before, I was using food treats to reinforce lying on the mat. Since Maisy is a clicker trained dog, she associates treats with working. If she was receiving treats for lying on the mat, that must mean that she should be working, and frankly, this is not a dog who will relax when there’s an opportunity to earn treats!
Now, I’m rewarding calm behavior with petting and massage. I don’t know that this would work for all dogs- and in fact, a year or two ago, it may not have worked for Maisy. She used to be fairly sensitive to touch, and would wiggle and squirm when I tried to stroke her. Since then, though, she’s learned to enjoy being touched, and more importantly, I’ve learned how she likes to be touched. Even better, it’s something we only do when chilling at home, not as a reward for trained behaviors.
With all that said, our typical relaxation session goes something like this: I wait until later in the evening, when Maisy is already showing signs of being tired. For a dog that doesn’t sleep a lot, this means waiting until she’s no longer begging me to throw her ball. Then I place her mat next to me on the couch, pat it with my hand, and ask her to come over. Sometimes I need to ask her to lie down, sometimes I don’t. If she tries to leave, I just call her back. Then, I time how long it takes her to relax, which I define as lying her head down. Depending on how restless she is, I ask her to remain like that for anywhere between one and five minutes. I will occasionally coo at her and rub her ears the way she likes before releasing her. If she chooses to stay on the mat after being released, that’s fine- I just wait until she goes, and then put the mat away.
We had two especially good sessions recently. On Sunday, it took Maisy several minutes to settle down, but once she did, it was true relaxation. She sprawled onto her back with her eyes closed. She looked truly peaceful, and she remained like that for almost ten minutes! Then, yesterday, as soon as I set the mat on the couch, she immediately jumped on it and lay down. She only remained in a relaxed position for about a minute, but even so, I was excited that she understood that the mat is a cue for relaxing.
I don’t plan to change anything for the next two weeks. Before I do, I want her to settle down on the mat within a minute, and to remain relaxed for a total of five minutes. I really think that it’s important to take things slowly right now. I want her to have a solid understanding of the mat as a place of relaxation before I add duration or change the location of the mat.
I’m really happy with the way it’s going, though, and although it’s taken awhile to figure out what will work for her, I think she’ll continue to be more and more relaxed. I already mentioned this, but in class last week, Maisy was calm and quiet in her crate for the entire time- something that had never happened before. Between our hard work and the chemical edge we’re getting from her medication, I’m finally feeling hopeful about her future again.