Where a Dog gets its Chill
She’s only a year and a half old? My dog could never sit still that long!
So well behaved!
Do they ever get to play?
In a word: yes.
We like to think there are three critical components needed to train a dog to be calm when you need them calm, whether it’s for service work or hanging out with you while you study.
1: Lots of exercise and “dog time.” Even world leaders have some down time. There is a wealth of evidence showing the need for work-life balance in humans. Dogs aren’t so different, especially when they’re young and they’re learning the ropes of service dogging. A well-exercised dog has a calm mind ready to learn and focus on you*.
2: Plenty of ongoing socialization. Dogs are naturally more reactive to new people, places, and situations than they are to things that are familiar for them. Starting as early as possible, once your puppy has full Parvo immunity, take your dog everywhere you can, both dog places (parks and pet shops) and dog-friendly people places (Home Depot, Starbucks, and Michaels are all known to be pet-friendly. Make sure your dog is potty trained!)
If you’re starting with an older dog, introduce new things gradually. Reward your dog for showing the calm, interested behavior you’re looking for. It may take longer with an older dog, especially a dog who is set in his or her ways, but every dog can learn to change. If your dog has a serious problem, like fearfulness or aggression, those should be addressed with a trainer or a reliable guide before moving on to public socialization.
3: A reliable signal for “work time” vs “play time.” At home, we use the command “settle” when we need the dogs to relax and go into low-energy mode. Like any command, dogs learn “settle” by associating the word with the behavior (lying down and minding their own business) and reward. Many people forget to reward their dogs when the dog is naturally displaying a desired behavior, so don’t forget to take advantage of your dog’s relaxation times! It will make training much faster. Tell the dog to “settle” and drop something enjoyable for them to work on: a favorite chew or a scatter of small treats.
When we need our dogs to go into public work mode, we signal by putting on their work harnesses. While learning, they need the occasional “settle” reminder which involves a calm hand on the back and the command. Our dogs are also trained to ride on and do work from atop our shoulders, and they associate being on a shoulder with being on their very best behavior (probably because it’s so much easier for us to catch every correction the moment its needed up there!) When dog time gets too exciting for our young dogs, we’ll occasionally put them on shoulder time, and they calm right down, because up there, we’re completely in charge, and all they have to do is hang out and watch.
Occasionally when working, the chance to meet a new dog or friendly human is an opportunity to reward good behavior. Using a consistent phrase before allowing a dog in work mode to interact with a stranger or another dog creates a “break time” command and teaches your dog that a) obeying doesn’t mean missing out and b) work is work until their human decides its break time.
Ten minutes later:
Remember: Rule one is time to exercise and play!**