You can teach your pet relaxation techniques to help manage behavior problems

As you make back-to-school plans for the kids and slow down for the school buses, think about what you can do for your pet to help improve her world and keep her brain engaged. Has your pet learned anything new recently? How about teaching her to Relax?

A portion of patients seen by behaviorists and trainers are under treatment and training for behaviors that may be considered “normal” behaviors. But “normal” behaviors often interfere and collide with daily function in a home. These may be behaviors such as exuberant greeting behaviors, barking to announce visitors’ arrivals, jumping on furniture and counters, digging up flower gardens and many more.

We spend an incredible amount of time teaching our dogs to do active behaviors (such as Sit, Down, Come, Shake), but we spend very little time teaching them behaviors that require them to be calm and

relaxed. Humans have realized that relaxation is a skill that is best achieved through practice; it does not come naturally to most of us. The same is often true for our pets. Many of the behaviors that test our bond with our pets can be replaced by behaviors that involve self-control and relaxation.

So how do we teach relaxation to our pets? Is it possible? Absolutely! It is not only possible but can be enjoyable and possibly essential to your pet’s well-being. Here is a technique that can be quickly and easily implemented.

Teach a Relax command: Relax is an easy task to teach your dog and can often be accomplished in just a couple of short sessions. It is typically taught to our patients in association with another stationary task such as Sit or Down to more easily facilitate the relaxation. Identify the situation (time and location) that works best for your pet.

To begin to teach your pet Relax, ask her for a stationary command (such as Sit or Down). Begin speaking to your pet in a soft voice until you see your pet relax, repeating a cue word such as Relax over and over. You may see your pet relax her face, her body and start breathing more slowly – and even lie down. When you recognize that your pet is relaxed, immediately communicate that this state is what you want with a reward (such as a favorite treat or a good dog word). If you are touching your dog during this training, be sure you are using long, slow strokes on her body instead of pats or scratches. Think about your own breathing and calmness during this time as well. Take slow, deep breaths as you engage with your pet. Over time, your dog may learn to respond to the Relax command by…relaxing!

Of course, always take an opportunity to reward relaxed behaviors when they occur naturally. We often spend a significant amount of time paying attention to undesirable behaviors (and potentially accidentally rewarding them with attention). Instead, be prepared with a stash of treats that can be given when you spontaneously see your pet engaged in a relaxed behavior.

Get started and have some relaxation time with your pet!

Beth Strickler MS DVM DACVB