Rewarding Calm Behavior

A tired looking bulldogLack of exercise can be one component in the equation that produces a dog with too much energy. However, other components also factor into the mix. The breed of dog also plays an important factor. Herding breeds, retrievers, and terriers — among others, are not going to be happy with a leisurely 30 minute walk, a few minutes of fetch, and a pat on the head as their daily dose of physical and mental engagement. And while lack of exercise and mental stimulation are major components making up Energizer doggies, another is the lack of consistent reward for calm behavior.

How to Reward Calm

This is kind of a tricky behavior to reward for many because it’s invisible. If the dog is quiet, then we aren’t really paying attention to it. We are used to training our dogs in active behaviors like come here, sit up, shake, fetch, etc.; we forget that inactive behaviors are trainable “actions” as well.

Have a Clicker and some Treats Handy

One of the things we need to have to reward and train calm behaviors is the ability to quickly and precisely mark them; this is where using a tool like a clicker really becomes necessary. You may only have a split second to mark the behavior you want and a clicker allows you the precision to do that. The click allows you to bridge the “YES!” — click, with the reward (reinforcement).

Capture the Calm between the Storms

Capturing behaviors are so effective because they are freely offered. The dog learns that it can make you click that funny little box and give it a treat by offering some type of behavior, in this case a moment of calm.

Say you have a dog that is an over exuberant greeter. Normally they will jump and yap and run and scoot and do everything they can to get you to interact with them. However, if you have a clicker, a treat, the time, and the patience, you can capture a moment of calm.

By ignoring the dog — saying and doing nothing, there will eventually come a moment where the dog will pause or sit to consider its next move. Clicking at that exact moment and treating the dog — throwing the treat away from you. You have planted a seed.

Just the action of getting a treat will probably cause the zoomies again, but this is where your patience comes in. Eventually, you will get another spit second of calm to click and treat again. Now you have watered the seed.

While I don’t suggest you make these sessions last hours on end, capturing two or three calm behaviors during greetings will soon have the seed germinated and the idea firmly in place — hey if I am still then good things happen.

 Please Sir, I Want Some More

But we want more than just a split second of calm here so as soon as your dog catches on to the game you have to change the rules. Now instead of rewarding a half second of calm, require a second of calm. Once you get that go to two seconds, and then three, slowly extending them out till you really are getting moments of calm. The dog will come to associate calm as a rewarding behavior.

Not so Fast

One thing to be careful of is pushing too far too fast. Don’t expect to go from one second to fifteen seconds in one step, it takes time and patience. You’ll know you’ve asked for too much if the dog suddenly seems to have forgotten everything and is frantically throwing behaviors at you in order to get the click/treat. If that happens, back down your criteria so that you get a moment of calm you can reward and then stay there for a bit and slowly work your way back up.

Other Calming Activities

There are also many other daily activities you can use to reinforce calm behaviors that don’t require a clicker. Make your dog sit quietly before putting their food down using the same criteria as the greeting if needed. Make your dog wait before going out the door by releasing them only after a moment of calmly waiting . No clicker or treat are needed, just the great outdoors and the ability to be patient and apply the same rules you’ve already learned.

Anytime you get the opportunity to reward you dog for calm behavior you are making it more valuable to them. The idea is for the dog to learn that calmness is valuable behavior that comes with tangible rewards.

*Notes

The method I am suggestion here does take good clicker coordination. You need to be able to mark the exact behavior you want with the clicker and that takes practice. It’s not a hard thing to learn and the more you practice it the better you will be. For more information on clicker training I highly suggest visiting Karen Pryor’s site www.clickertraining.com and perusing her library. It is also worth finding a class on clicker training in your area to help you get your chops down.

Happy training,

Kevin