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Dog Relaxation: Training a Puppy or High-Energy Dog

With our young or high energy dogs we are often faced with the challenges of hyperactive behaviors such as excessive biting, chewing, jumping, destruction, and vocalization.  Most of these behaviors can be attributed to lack of physical and mental exercise, unintentionally reinforcing undesirable behaviors, and missed opportunities to reinforce calm behaviors.  Training calm behaviors is another important component to helping dogs learn to relax. When dogs are unable to properly relax, they find things to do in order to exert their energy and to occupy their minds…many of which can drive dog parents crazy.

Physical Exercise

We try our best to physically exercise our dogs, but the urban lifestyle creates many obstacles: Dog parks can be a precarious unknown; large outdoor spaces require dogs to be on leash; busy schedules and work days don’t afford enough time for long treks and running; physical challenges may limit our ability to keep up with our dogs; and the cost of having another person come in to daily supplement the dog’s exercise can be prohibitive.  So what can you do to stimulate and tire out your dog?

  • Park trips with a long line (not a flexi-leash).  Allowing your dog to run and chase using a long line helps your dog to exert energy while providing you with the safety of your dog not getting away from you. This is also a wonderful opportunity to practice getting a stronger recall.  Start with shorter distances so your dog understands that there is a limit to the line so your dog doesn’t run full force and hurt herself when she hits the end of the line.  Gradually increase the distance as she becomes more adept with the concept of the line.
  • Play dates with other dogs.  Play is one of the best ways for dogs to wear themselves out. Not only are they moving their bodies in different ways, but they are also mentally stimulated as they are having to think about and process what the other dog is communicating.
  • Obstacle courses. Set up a course where your dog has to jump, crawl, and do other movements that would not be within his normal repertoire.  You can also take your dog to a park and have them jump over logs, crawl under bars, and even weave through trees.
  • Walks can be a good form of exercise, but don’t expect that they will tire your dog out… and in some cases, can actually stimulate your dog.  The best way a walk will tire your dog out is by allowing for lots of time to sniff.  Sniffing activates the brain because the dog is having to process information from all those amazing smells that we can’t detect.

Mental Exercise

For many dogs physical exertion may wear them out briefly, but an hour later, they are back to barking or doing other things that wear on their caregiver’s nerves.  In addition to physical exercise, dogs need to be mentally stimulated and challenged.  Twenty- four hour training is not feasible but there are fun and engaging games that dogs can do on their own or with their caregivers that will help the dog to feel more calm and balanced.

  • Food puzzles.  There are a wide assortment of food puzzles that help dogs to learn how to problem solve and can engage their interest without constant attention from the caregiver.  If your puppy or dog has never been introduced to a food puzzle, start with the simple, interactive ones that move and deliver a lot of rewards.  As your dog becomes more adept, move on to more complicated puzzles that require your dog to have more patience and perseverance.  For dogs that are especially active, replace all meals with food puzzles. This strategy can help to level out the highs and lows because the dog is exerting energy as she consuming calories.
  • “Find it” games and Sniffing (nose) games.  “Find it” and sniffing games give dogs a job and can mentally wear them out.  Start by teaching your dog what “find it” means.  Tell your dog “find it” and then toss a treat on the ground.  As he searches and finds the treat, you mark and then deliver another treat.  Repeat over and over until the dog starts to look on the ground when you say “find it”.  Then move on to hiding the treats.  At first, let the dog see where you are hiding the treat (you may practice having your dog in a stay or have someone else hold the dog) and then tell dog to “find it”.  When he has successfully found the treat, you mark and give him a treat.  After several repetitions, start to hide the treats where your dog cannot see.  There are different variations of this game that the whole family can participate in like hide and seek (search for people in the house) and naming and searching for toys.  You can also do these “find it” and nose games in your backyard or other safe locations that don’t entail other dogs edging in on the “find it” prize.
  • Training.  When first starting to train your puppy or dog, you may want to do short intervals (5-minutes per session), several times per day in order to keep them engaged.  As your puppy starts to become more enthusiastic about the training, you can gradually increase the duration, but you always want to end it when she is still engaged.  With this said, you want to also make the training a little more diverse and challenging.  Dogs, like us, can get bored with the same thing over and over.  For many dogs, training can actually help relax them, so after an exciting event, like a run in the park, or a game of fetch, end the event with a brief training session to help center and focus them.

Reinforcing Unwanted Behaviors and Training Calm

Because all behaviors operate on reinforcement, the continuation and even acceleration of behaviors is due to inadvertent reinforcement.  When puppies and dogs are bored, they will seek out ways to alleviate their boredom. Chewing on the furniture, jumping on the table, barking at people, stealing articles of clothing…not only provides a fun diversion for their boredom, but they also get the best reinforcement of all…our attention!  Management is key in helping our dogs not to practice these unwanted behaviors and to not inadvertently reinforce them for these unwanted behaviors.  This may mean that the dog is not allowed in these areas without direct supervision and the objects that the dog likes to steal needs to be put up and away.

Training Calm Entails Reinforcing the Behaviors You Want

When puppies or dogs are playing on their own, or resting and relaxing, we tend to sigh with relief and feel happy that we can finally get some work done and ignore the dog.  However, these are the times that a dog should be reinforced so that she learns to engage in these behaviors more often.  At first, when you reinforce your dog for resting, she may get up and become excited, but just walk away and come back when the dog is back to resting and being calm.  Gradually, your dog will start to make the connection to what behavior is earning the reward.

Training a dog to go to his bed or mat is essential to working on building more relaxation.  First train your dog that the mat offers good things. Start to click and treat your dog for going to the mat and before getting off, release the dog from the mat.  Once your dog is consistently going to to the mat, you can tether your dog to a place where your dog can comfortably lie down on the mat.  Sit next to the dog and ignore.  When you see calm behaviors (not looking at you for the next treat), give dog a treat.  Gradually, use other reinforcements such as calm praise or petting to reinforce calm behaviors on the mat.

Lastly, when you have been training or playing with your dog, you want to make sure that your dog knows that play or work is over.  Using a cue like “all done” and then walking away and ignoring dog will start to teach your dog that that now, she can go off, relax, and be a dog.   

Author: Amber Hardin, MA, CPDT-KA