Chill Time: How to help your dog relax

I don’t think my dog is ever relaxed unless he is sleeping. Is that normal?

It is a strange concept to most humans that some dogs actually need to be trained to relax. It is just not something that comes naturally to all dogs, and like people who need to learn to meditate or perform a relaxing activity such as Tai Chi or types of yoga, it requires actual instruction. This is especially important for dogs that exhibit extraordinary amounts of anxiety or stress, and the training might need to be combined with medication for the dog to have a happy, “normal” life.

That being said, if you have a dog who doesn’t seem anxious but just has great amounts of energy, teaching him how to relax can be part of his regular training routine. Once he has had some vigorous exercise for the day and has learned some basics like sit and down, then teaching a “Relax” or “Settle” cut can be achieved. I call this “Coffee Shop Dog” (alternately, “Beer Garden Dog”) in my classes, and it is as simple as rewarding the behaviors we like while we are relaxing ourselves.

Take your dog for a long, brisk walk with lots of sniffing and a little training along the way. You could also let her go for a run at the dog park or daycare, play with her on a long line, or engage her with a flirt pole. At the end of this activity, take a seat somewhere with low distraction, either inside or outside. If your dog sits or lies down on her own, reward her with special treats. Ignore all other behavior unless it is truly obnoxious—then you should penalize her with a time-out. If she is relatively calm, but still walking around looking for something to do, prompt her to sit or lie down near where you are hanging out. Reward.

Pepper demonstrates a learned “relaxed down”

If she is sitting, cue or lure her into a down, then teach her the “Relax” cue, which means getting her to lie down on one hip, instead of lying there looking like a sphinx, ready to pop back up. To get this relaxed down, tell her to relax in a calm tone, and take a treat right by her nose and pull it around toward her shoulder. Most dogs have one side that is easier for them to lie on than the other. Reward this enough times and soon the word “relax” and/or the hand signal of curving your hand to one side will prompt her into the position.

When your dog is good at relaxing on cue, turn that into a prolonged down-stay with a nice chew toy. You will want to proof this behavior in various locations starting with easier places, such as while you are watching TV, and work up to challenging environments like an actual coffee shop or beer garden while you enjoy a day out with your dog.