At Our Companions, we use mat work as a foundational skill to build impulse control and calm behavior. We do this through shaping and reinforcing relaxed and neutral behaviors on the mat around increasing levels of distractions. We also use the mat itself as a station in various training games.
In addition, many dogs in our behavior modification programs will use mat work to build confidence through a predictable and safe alternative behavior in otherwise stressful or unpredictable situations.
Mat work is especially helpful for dogs who:
- Join their family on various outings
- Live in a home with children or other animals
- Bark or whine for attention during the day
- Counter-surf or get into things around mealtime
- Struggle with overexcitement with visitors
- Have separation distress or anxiety*
- Are fearful or reactive to sudden noise or movement*
- Show signs of aggression in the home*
*If your dog is experiencing higher levels of fear, anxiety, or stress please seek the help of a certified Canine Behavior Consultant and/or a Veterinary Behaviorist to create a safe and effective training/management plan
What you will need:
- Your Dog
- A bed, towel, or mat
- A quiet, low-distraction environment
- Food Rewards
- A 6-foot leash (optional)
Before working on mat training, it is important to have a good understanding of dog body language so you can monitor your dog’s emotional threshold and ensure you are rewarding calm, relaxed, and neutral behaviors.
Check out Fear Free Happy Home’s Dog Body Language 101: https://youtu.be/siy0eog48ys
Charging the Mat
The first step of mat training is to teach your dog that the mat is an AWESOME place to be! We do this through “charging,” which pairs the chosen reward with the mat itself. This creates a great positive association and reinforcement history.
- Set up a bed, towel, or mat on the ground
- When your dog shows any sign of interest in the mat say “Yes!” and toss a reward to the mat
- Continue to say “Yes!” and reward for any behavior your dog makes toward or on the mat
- As you continue, you should see your dog spending more time on the mat. They may even offer you great behaviors like a sit or a down!
- Avoid using your verbal cues of ‘sit’ or ‘down’ when teaching the new place behavior. Instead, use your physical lures or prompts to encourage and shape calmer behaviors if needed
- If your dog gets any special treats, bones, or toys during the day deliver them to their mat as a way to jackpot the behavior and continue to build positive associations!
Adding A Cue and Release Word
A release word tells your dog when a certain behavior or activity is complete. Incorporating a release work into mat training can help to eliminate confusion and, if teaching a continuous settle behavior, will signal to your dog when they are able to get up and move about the environment again.
- Once your dog is continuously offering behavior toward or on the mat, say your release word such as ‘okay’ or ‘free’ and walk them away from the mat
- If your dog is staying on the mat, you can also toss a treat away to encourage them to move
- Wait several seconds
- Say your chosen cue such as “place” “go to bed” or “settle” and walk back towards the mat
- As soon as your dog touches the mat, say “Yes!” and jackpot 3-5 food rewards on the mat
- Continue to reward your dog for calmer behaviors such as a sit or down on the mat
- After 3-5 more rewards, say your release word again and move the dog away from the mat
Shaping Calm Behaviors
An additional step with mat work is not only teaching the station of ‘Place,’ but also building calm, regulated, and relaxed behaviors on the mat itself. This behavior is also known as a ‘settle.’
This behavior can be easier to teach while you are also seated/calm and your dog is on a 6-foot leash to help prevent them from getting distracted or over-excited by anything in the environment.
- Just like in charging the mat, initially reward your dog for any interaction or contact with the mat itself
- As you continue to reward, start to wait for calmer behaviors. This may include:
- Down with hips rolled
- Down with head down
- While rewarding down behaviors, it is important to place the food reward calmly on the mat between the dog’s front paws. This will help to avoid them standing up and reinforce/maintain the behavior
- Continue to reward calmly, and slowly. At this stage, you may start to slowly stretch the duration of the behavior before you reward
- If your dog is overexcited by the sound “Yes!” or the presence of food, check out the ‘Calm Around Food Rewards’ section in additional resources
- In the early stages, practice keeping your own body calm and neutral with your eyes up as this can be an additional cue to your dog that it is time to relax
- This can be a great exercise to do while cooking, eating dinner, working on your computer, and/or reading a book/watching a movie
Once your dog is confident in settling on their mat in low-distraction settings, we can start to add distractions. We will break down two main ways to add distractions: Trainer Distractions vs. Environmental Distractions.
Adding distractions requires the trainer/handler to slowly raise criteria so that the dog can succeed at each step—building confidence and strengthening the behavior. Moving too quickly will cause frustration for both the dog and the handler.
If you need help in slowly building criteria, check out the Relaxation Protocol in the Helpful Resources section.
Adding Trainer Distractions
We will define “Trainer Distractions” as distractions that originate from the trainer/handler themselves, including movement, sound, or interactions with the environment.
Example: Dog is relaxed in their bed while the handler moves about the kitchen preparing a meal.
- After charging and shaping the settle, start by changing your body positioning slightly. Think standing up, taking a small step back, or even slightly shifting your weight.
- If your dog was successful in staying on the mat after the movement is complete, say “Yes!” and move to reward your dog in between their paws on the mat.
- If your dog was not successful, do NOT reward them. Instead, prompt them to move back to the mat. Wait a second or two and make the movement easier.
- Once your dog is successful say “Yes!” and reward.
- Slowly increase the intensity of movement each round
Tip: The Cookie Jar Method
- This is great for reinforcing calm behaviors while doing another activity such as cooking, working on your computer, or doing laundry
- Place a container of yummy treats up on the table or a counter where your dog cannot reach it
- Set up their mat 5-10 feet away from the “cookie jar”
- When the dog succeeds at staying on the mat say, “Yes,” walk to the cookie jar, grab a reward, then walk to set the reward in between the dog’s paws on the mat
Adding Environmental Distractions
We will define ‘Environmental Distractions” as distractions that originate from the environment itself, separate from what the trainer/handler is doing with their dog.
Example: The dog is relaxed next to the handler while they are sitting at a park bench while people and dogs play in the distance.
This method works best with the dog on a 6-foot leash with you
- Sit or stand in a designated location with your dog on the mat next to you
- Start by charging the mat and shaping the settle
- Watch the environment
- As things occur in the environment, say “Yes!” and reward your dog for staying settled on the mat
- If your dog gets up, do NOT reward them, instead, call them back to the mat, regain settle, and then wait a few seconds as they look back out to the environment
- This follows an Engage-Disengage style reward system, check out our resource: https://www.ourcompanions.org/engage-disengage-game-for-fearful-reactive-dogs/
- If you can, start by working in the home with another family member or known person making controlled, small distractions in the environment such as walking a few steps or turning a light on and off
- If your dog is unable to settle initially, continuously gets up anytime there is a distraction, or becomes reactive you need to gain space away from the stimuli or find a lower distraction environment to practice.
Calm Around Food Rewards
- Helping Dogs Who are Overexcited by Food: https://youtu.be/DR831Q2fv-U
Videos on Teaching a Calm Settle
- The Calm Settle for Dogs & Puppies: https://youtu.be/yr1olzgidMw
- Training Your Dog to Settle and Relax: https://youtu.be/cTZJk9z_uRI
Introduction to the Relaxation Protocol
- Introduction to the Relaxation Protocol: https://youtu.be/VhX6VeHOFcQ
- Link to Karen Pryor’s Full Protocol: Complete Relaxation Protocol.pdf
Webinar Series on Mat Training by DogKind
- Building Confidence: https://www.youtube.com/live/qZD07FaJEeg?feature=share
- Adding Distractions: https://www.youtube.com/live/2O0T7FijIEE?feature=share