Managing an aggressive dog is not an easy task. In the first three sections of this article, we have focused on knowing about and understanding the types of aggression, how to handle specific forms of aggression, and training and exercises to help aggressive dogs. In this final section, we will look at how to help a dog to relax.
When dogs have an aggressive reaction, owners naturally try to calm them down as quickly as possible. However, many owners report that their dogs are unresponsive and cannot relax. The reason for this is that aggressive dogs typically don’t know how to calm themselves down.
Not only does the owner’s attempt at relaxing and calming them not work, but the mounting frustration and tension that results will cause the dog to be even more aroused. In order to break this cycle, the owner must teach the dog how to relax. Fortunately, this can be done when you use the right methods.
The best approach for helping a dog to relax is a methodical one in an environment free of distractions. Here are a few exercises to try if you need to teach your dog how to relax.
Structured down-stay or sit-stay exercises are a great place to start as a baseline relaxation task. In these exercises, the owner begins by teaching the dog to maintain a short, relaxed down-stay. Gradually, generic environmental distractions and human activities are added. Relaxed behaviors that the dog already performs are reinforced and placed on cue by adding a word or hand signal.
Canine massage and TTouch are massage techniques that can be used to help establish changes in relaxation in association with a safety signal. TTouch uses a circular motion and a light touch to relax dogs and lower their stress levels.
The lateral recumbency or “play dead” position can also be used as a tool to help dogs relax. Learning to obey this command even in stressful situations helps dogs stay calm. Lateral recumbency is a vulnerable position for dogs to be in, so they should never be forced into it.
If your dog won’t assume this position on his own, either the behavior has not been sufficiently rehearsed or the situation is too stressful for him. Forcing your dog under these circumstances will erode his trust in you.
Other safety signals, such as conditioned odors or using a “relaxation rug” can help enhance the effectiveness of these behaviors. Exercises should be introduced first in a quiet environment in your home. Once your dog becomes proficient at the tasks, you can repeat them in other places.
Dogs and other animals make associations between the stimuli in their environment and the experiences they have there. These associations can be negative or positive. Safety signals are environmental stimuli that your dog associates with feeling relaxed and safe. They can be tactile, olfactory, visual, or auditory.
Previously trained behaviors or cues also can be safety signals. The stimuli eventually become associated with the relaxation experience. Once that happens, the stimuli alone will generate a relaxed feeling in your dog.
Classical conditioning, another powerful tool, involves choosing a specific stimulus such as a dog bed, a rug, or an odor and associating it with pleasant activities and relaxation tasks.
During this training, the stimulus should be used only in conjunction with positive experiences. Eventually, the dog will become conditioned to relax when the safety cues are present. Safety cues should be portable and easy to reproduce but specific enough to prevent dogs from getting used to their presence in the environment.
Relaxation training can be useful for dogs with anxiety as well as for aggressive dogs. It involves using a technique called shaping that reinforces a specific behavior that the dog already performs that is an approximation to the goal. As the dog’s behavior becomes closer to the goal, the owner or trainer gradually reinforces it.
For example, in training a dog to relax on a mat, the trainer or owner will mark and reinforce the dog’s behavior as he gets closer to achieving the goal. The marker used to reinforce the behavior can be a word, such as yes, or a sound, such as a clicker, and it should be repeatedly paired with food.
When it comes to relaxation training, it is essential to take a step-by-step approach. For example, in training a dog to relax on a mat, you should begin by placing the training mat down. Next, mark and reinforce the dog with a treat for looking at the mat or turning towards it. Toss the treat away so the dog must return to the mat for more reinforcement.
The next steps are to mark/treat the dog for moving towards the mat, for placing a paw on the mat, for standing with all four paws on the mat, for sitting on the mat, and for lying on the mat. Once the dog has learned to lie down on the mat, increase the time before giving the reward. Slowly, transition to rewarding the dog while he is on the mat.
Any relaxed behaviors, such as putting his head on his paws or the mat, rocking his hip to one side, extending his hind legs, or rolling to one side should be rewarded with a mark and treat. If your dog gets stuck at any stage of the training, go back to the previously successful step and introduce small steps towards the final goal.
In order to be successful, training sessions should last only two or three minutes. Also, it is important to remove the mat between training sessions. If you have more than one dog, be sure to train them separately.
Once your dog is able to lie in a relaxed posture on the mat, move the mat around the house. This teaches him that the mat can be available in different places and that he will always be rewarded for relaxing on it.
In the end, the use of relaxation tasks, safety cues, and training for relaxation do take time and patience, but the benefits for you and your dog will make it well worth the effort.
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