Can you truly teach a dog to be calm?

My perspective on helping dogs behave in a calm fashion may be different than how others address it.

That's because, in my opinion, the emotion of "calm" is not something you teach operantly (dog is aware that they are learning) as much as "acquire" through classical conditioning and specific environmental associations.

"Calm" is an emotional state that results naturally from several things:

  1. Providing your dog with adequate physical exercise to satiate the body
  2. Providing your dog with adequate mental stimulation to satiate the brain
  3. A temperament that is stable and unstressed
  4. Classically conditioning your dog to feel the emotion of "calm" in various places

For example, how I "feel" in a church is different than how I feel at a rock concert, because I have developed different associations with those two places. Your dog needs to see your house as more of a church while the backyard might remain the favored rock concert.

What is "calm"?

Dogs (and humans) acquire the state of "calm" when their bodies and minds are relaxed. To get there, you need a fully satisfied emotional system, which includes plenty of play to engage the body and learning to engage the mind.

Feeling more calm is also a process of maturity. If you attempt to teach calm with food, be aware that your dog may well be thinking about earning those cookies rather that simply existing quietly, and that is an engaged state of mind, not relaxed.

And therein lies the problem. There is an inherent contradiction between attempting to teach the act of feeling nothing and the dog actually feeling…nothing. Calm. Relaxed. Sleepy. Content.

This does not mean that you have to live in the zoo, watching as your dog careens off the walls, but it does mean that you need to maintain realistic expectations, and that your dog deserves to receive enough enthusiastic physical and mental exercise that asking for "calm behavior" in the house is realistic.

Few things make me sadder than people who do not believe in allowing their dogs to exhibit their exuberant nature through enthusiastic play, because they believe that this will make their dog more crazy.

That is simply not true – not for children and not for dogs.

Pressure cookers don't stop building steam just because you never allow a release. (If you happen to have a high drive or very energetic puppy or young dog, consider purchasing the book that I wrote with Deb Jones titled: Dog Sports Skills: Play! We have a whole chapter on raising and handling the high drive dog so that both of you can thrive).

Teaching Calm Behavior: The Difference Between Behavior and Emotion

Note that I said you can teach 'calm behavior" but not a calm emotional state. A dog can be trained to lay absolutely still – not moving a muscle – and not be calm at all.

Indeed, in the world of performance we teach our dogs to do exactly that – not move a muscle in anticipation of an explosion, much as a track sprinter waits on the line for the sound of the gun to spring forwards into action. No one would say that those runners were "calm".

Not moving – yes. Calm, no. And so it goes for dogs.

What's the point?

We do not train emotional states – we train behaviors. However, we can "condition" emotional states. This sounds like a meaningless distinction, but it is not – it's actually fundamental to understand the difference. It affects how you choose to approach the training (or conditioning) of calm with your dog, and it also affects your ability to effectively problem solve if that becomes necessary.

Let's go back to the comparisons I've made earlier between children and dogs. Children also have a way of talking too loud and moving too much, or at least too much by adult standards. So what do we do?

In pre-school and kindergarten, we alternate interesting learning with plenty of opportunities for kids to run and play. This is especially true at the younger ages.

We teach them the idea that there is a time and a place. When you are outside you should run! Play! Be rambunctious! Engage your friends! Get that adrenaline pumping! And when you are inside at your desk, relax and listen without moving – now you are learning but you are awake and engaged!

And finally, it's time to rest on your mat. Your body is exercised, your mind is full and…now your teacher will work to condition you to the feeling that when you lay on your mat – it's time to go to sleep – or at least to rest your body and your mind.

Conditioning the Body to Relax

Instead of "training," a conditioned expectation will be set up. The pre-conditions are in place first! The body has moved, the brain has exercised, and now the child is placed on a comfortable mat to rest.

If the child gets up, she will notice that all of the other children are lying quietly.

The teacher will speak in a quiet, calm voice. The child will be asked to return to her mat. Maybe she will get a quiet back rub, or have a soothing song sung to her. Maybe she will be patted rhythmically.

Regardless, she will not be "trained" to sleep on her mat – her body will be "conditioned" to feel sleepy and relaxed when she goes there. Maybe not the first day or the first week, but after several weeks that is exactly what will happen.

That child will be given no alternative and she will eventually meet that expectation. She will either rest or sleep as she has been conditioned to do. The calmer the child is by temperament, the easier this will be.

And your puppy?

With little effort on your part, your puppy should begin to associate their crate or pen with relaxation. They have a soft dog bed in there. Maybe they have something to chew, since chewing is relaxing for most dogs (chewing is not eating; it's more akin to giving a toddler a bottle than candy).

Good — you're on your way!

How it Works In My House

How about loose in your house?

It will depend on what kind of activities you and your puppy engage in when in your house. If you play ball in your family room, then expect your puppy to feel energetic when in the family room with you and a ball nearby.

If you only play ball in the hallway but engage in calm activities in the family room, then expect your puppy to be calmer in the family room.

In my house, I do most of my training in one of three places – the hallway, the entry way or the bedroom. And since my training almost always involves play with toys as well as food play, my training sessions tend to be quite energetic.

Guess how my dogs behave when we walk through that part of the house? If you guessed hopeful, energetic, and not calm at all – then you would be correct!

How about the family room? In my house there are enthusiastic human children, three dogs, and a fairly active household most of the time. There is not a lot of calm and with so much going on, the dogs tend to be awake and participating quite a bit – they want to play too!

Guess what happens when my family leaves for a few days and I stay home with the dogs, alone in the house? When the energy drops dramatically?

If you guessed "they relax and get calm" then you'd be right.

When nothing is happening, they sleep. Until, of course, I walk to the part of the house where I train them. And then they are bright eyed and bushy tailed – hoping for their turn!

Start By Considering Who Your Dog Is...

If you really value a calm dog, I'm going to give you some advice.

Pick your dog with care. Select for a dog or a breed that tends to be more relaxed. If you buy a working line Malinois or a hunting Labrador, it's unrealistic to decide that you're going to "make it" calm. That's especially true when they're a youngster and when you don't have the time to truly exhaust the brain and body.

It is also unkind to mold dogs into what you want, without regard for who they are. Dogs come with innate temperaments, just like people. There is nothing wrong with a lively temperament!

Don't suck the personality out of your dog. Find ways to compromise so that everyone gets what they need.

And if you or your trainer are determined to turn your lively dog into a plant, don't be surprised if you find yourself dealing with new issues as a result of your dog's extreme frustration, such as biting you (or objects), self mutilation, neurotic spinning or mindless barking.

You can put a lid on the pressure cooker…..

Takeaways: How do you teach 'calm'?

Properly exercise your dog, both mentally and physically

Set up a calm household.

Decide on parameters for behavior – and what is acceptable – where. This you will both train and condition.

What does this mean?

You might decide that running in the house is not acceptable, so that is your criteria to trigger a session in conditioning calm. When running in the house happens, interrupt your dog's behavior (for example, call their name) and place your dog on a down stay or on a mat (your dog needs some training first).

Keep your dog in that position – you can reward with food if that is required to keep the dog on the mat, but that has nothing to do with the acquisition of the calm behavior – not moving the body is the critical component here.

We are not trying to teach the dog to be calm, we are interrupting the undesirable behavior and substituting an incompatible one.

Ideally, you will then pet your dog calmly or give a gentle belly rub or massage. Now you are encouraging the emotion of "calm." When you release your dog, do so quietly, and then watch the resulting behavior.

If your dog bursts out of the position, put him right back. Next time, as you release – calmly give a cookie to keep them from bursting forwards. 

The Theory: Beginning to Understand

Eventually, you want your dog to make the proper association: I want to run through the house! That consistently leads to a down stay and massage! That massage makes me feel calm and relaxed! Instead of running through the house I will be calm!

Then whatever triggers the urge to run through the house will be replaced by the desire for a belly rub. And if not, that's ok too – the dog's behavior is still interrupted with the down stay, which offers a management solution – your dog is not running through the house.

He is staying. Maybe not calm, but staying nonetheless.

That's the theory anyway. As I said before, the calmer you can make your household and the more physical and mental exercise that your dog receives as a matter of routine, the easier this will be.

Getting Started: Teaching Stay or Matwork

If your dog doesn't have the basic down stay or "mat behavior" established, start there.

Another personal favorite and very popular approach is called The 2014 relaxation protocol by Dr Karen Overall. The original version is also available as a series of mp3 files (scroll to the bottom of the page).

While designed for reactive dogs, it's a great way to teach a "settle" cue in a systematic fashion.

For my purposes (teaching a long stay) the only changes I would suggest are to use the lowest value food possible, to avoid your dog 'thinking' too much and therefore getting "not calm."

I'd also use a down instead of a sit but that is up to you.

This is especially true of higher drive dogs that are conditioned to action whenever they recognize the start of a training session.

If your house is a zoo, your work will be 10 times harder.

If your house is a zoo and you have multiple dogs, your work will be 50 times harder

If your house is a zoo, you have multiple dogs, and your family is not on board, then your work will be 100 times harder.

Good luck.

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