One of the biggest challenges for owners of easily stressed or aroused dogs is effecting behavior change. While it’s important to manage your dog’s stressors to decrease the issues associated with chronic stress, management is not always easy or practical. Unless you can change your dog’s behavior, you may find yourself struggling with lifelong behavioral issues as your dog struggles to deal with day-to-day life.
One of the most helpful changes committed owners can make is to teach their dogs how to relax. While this may seem silly at first, it’s a sad truth that some dogs are simply unable to relax. Conditioning a relaxed response will enable your dog to better deal with stressors, as he will be less aroused or stressed in general and thus further from his threshold.
Before beginning to teach your dog to relax, it’s important for you as the handler to understand what relaxation is. Simply put, relaxation is the opposite of stress. Relaxation is not sleepiness or laziness. A dog can be quite active, running through the woods perhaps, and still be quite relaxed. On the other hand, I frequently see extremely stressed dogs who are sleeping or resting. These dogs will lie down, scanning their environment, then drop off to sleep briefly, only to wake with a start moments later and repeat the cycle. In these cases, the dogs are so mentally exhausted that their brains are shutting down, but also so incredibly stressed that they are unable to relax into a deep or restful sleep. This is incredibly sad.
Recognizing what your dog looks like when he or she is relaxed is important to your progress. Every dog is different, so remember that we are looking for a dog who is not stressed, but may not necessarily be sleepy. Most dogs will exhibit soft eyes; loose muscles; still or softly wagging tails that appear heavy, with the base relaxed; and a gently open mouth. You should note a lack of muscle ridges, especially around the brows and mouth. Relaxed dogs will breathe deeply and evenly, with the speed dependant on the activity level of the dog.
So, how does one condition a relaxed response? One of the best tools we’ve found in our behavior practice is the Protocol for Relaxation, written by Dr. Karen Overall. This protocol is a set of biofeedback exercises designed to teach dogs to relax while stuff happens around them. While originally written for dogs (and cats) with severe anxiety or aggression issues, the protocol works equally well to teach slightly excitable or anxious pet dogs how to chill out.
The protocol is designed to go at the dog’s pace. Dogs should be able to hold a relaxed sit or down stay for 15 seconds prior to starting the protocol. It’s important to realize that this is not an obedience exercise. The goal is relaxation, not merely compliance with the stay. This means that owners should not progress to the next task set until the dog is able to be relaxed through the current task set, regardless of the dog’s ability to hold his position. Furthermore, if the dog chooses to slide into a down from his sit position, he should not be corrected for doing so.
I often start this exercise with the dog lying on a mat. You may choose to speak softly to your dog through the whole protocol or to remain quiet: it depends on which is most helpful to your dog’s relaxation. Experiment with your dog and see what works best. Move slowly and smoothly while doing the various tasks, and reward your dog after each individual task.
Over time, the Protocol for Relaxation can bring about a powerful change in dogs who could not previously relax. As your dog learns to relax in the context of the protocol, you can help him generalize this behavior to new environments by taking his mat on the road and going through the protocol in new locations. Remember to decrease your expectations when you go anywhere new, and always be ready to leave if you determine that you’ve pushed your dog too far.
Have you done the protocol with your dog? How did he respond? Please share your experiences in the comments section!