When I walk my dog or take her to the dog park, the most common question I hear (with an element of surprise in their voices) is “your dog is so calm!”. Meanwhile there dog is off somewhere in the distance digging a hole, chasing down birds or just trying to pry the leash from their hands.
I don’t blame people for their surprised reactions, it truly amazes me how this topic is overlooked by most teachers, trainers, and online courses. Yet it is such an essential and sort-after behavior right next to obedience and personality. It is also of utmost importance to instill into a dog from an early age, as it is one of the most difficult to train later on in their lives (after about 2-3 years).
It’s Just The Breed Or It’s Just My Dog:
It is an all too common belief that you can’t train a dog to be calm. So most people when seeing their dogs behave energetically in a time when he/she is not supposed to, they surrender to that fact and remind themselves that it is just the breed or just their dog in particular that is that way, so there is nothing that can be done about it.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, its true that some dogs are born with a very calm temperament and lower energy levels, golden retrievers and many of the larger dog breeds are renowned for this, though even that can have its exceptions. A poorly trained golden retriever can sometimes be the biggest maniac in the park!
Now before you ask, no I don’t have one of those breeds that is calm and collected all the time straight from day one. And no she is not 15 years of age. Actually, she is a 7-month-old (at the time of writing this) Portuguese Water Dog, a working dog breed and one of the most energetic and strong-willed breeds there is.
She and other dogs I have worked with are proof that having a calm dog is more training than predisposition.
So how do you achieve it?
As with much of the dog training you will learn from me and other trainers with a modern approach, it is more about training your dog self-control and to be self-sufficient than it is teaching an actual behavior in a given scenario. By training your dog to control its own emotions you are giving them the ability to contain themselves in ANY place or situation. If there are some particularly sticky situations remaining after that, you can then apply scenario specific training to those.
Dogs don’t naturally develop a strong ability to control their own emotions, so it is up to us to work with them to be able to develop one. We do that through a few simple yet effective routines, and we apply them consistently.
Extended Crate Training:
This is by far the most crucial element of training your dog to be calm and collected when you need them to be. If you are not crate training your dog already, I strongly urge you to get yourself a dog crate and start using it as soon as possible.
Most dog training leverages rewards as a way to get them to do what we need them too, and it is incredibly effective. However implementing negative consequences is just as efficient, in effect doubling your training opportunities.
If your dog is acting out of control after having been told politely to sit, lay-down or stay, you simply say the word “oops” and take her to her crate, or alternatively a boring, sectioned off area of the house. The dog will remain there until it has stayed quiet for a minimum of 2 minutes, but ultimately we should aim for 5 minutes.
This type of training can also be extended beyond your home and it is encouraged that you do so as they will learn faster.
If you’re walking your dog and it begins to lose control, look for the nearest safe tie off point, tie her leash to it and walk a few meters away and ignore them, with your back turned. If you’re in a dog park take them out of the park and do the same thing.
When I am visiting my in-laws home, I use the guest bathroom as a place of isolation, if you are resourceful there is almost always a place or way to enforce a timeout as a negative consequence.
Learning to be happy alone:
The secondary benefit of using a crate for training is that the dog will begin to learn to entertain themselves. So often I see people with a new puppy, and they give it constant attention when it wants it. This is not a bad thing per se, but it does not provide the dog the opportunity to learn to entertain itself, it becomes reliant on the owners to keep it occupied all the time.
This is not healthy behavior, for the dog or for the owners, a well-balanced dog should have just as much fun chewing a toy as it does in the presence of humans. The unfortunate truth is that most puppies don’t enjoy being alone, one of the most common issues seen by dog trainers is anxiety and barking when owners leave the home, it is a very difficult behavior to live with, especially if you have neighbors.
What to do:
Allocate time in each day for your dog to spend time on its own in isolation, preferably in a crate. Give the dog something to play with, it can be a toy with food in it or a soft bone and no matter what the dog’s behavior is, leave him/her in the crate for the allocated period of time. Ensure that the dog is calm for at least 2 minutes (preferably 5 minutes) before allowing them out of the crate. It’s ok if the dog gets excited when you approach the crate, just instruct him to lay down and wait until they are calm before opening it.
I recommend starting with isolation periods around 10-15 minutes, to begin with, and increasing these by 5-minute increments every day. Though while I am home I usually limit the dog’s isolation time to one hour, while I am away for extended periods of time, she can remain in her crate for up too 3-4 hours.
This training can take some patience and discipline but if you’re consistent the results will come so quickly it will make you forget that the dog had a problem in the first place, especially if combined with the other methods outlined below.
The Calm Down:
I attest most of my dog’s calm demeanor to repetitively utilizing this simple technique. The calm down is simply the process of building up your dog’s energy level as much as possible using any means necessary and then calming him down again. It is literally repeating the physical actions with the dog that we want them to be able to do on their own.
Standing in front of your dog, you can begin jumping up and down, clapping, using a high pitched voice saying puppy, puppy, puppy, waiving around their favorite toy, whatever your dog reacts to most. Once they are in an extremely excited state of mind simply stop what you are doing and calmly ask the dog to sit and lay down. Waiting for them to settle into a calm and relaxed state before repeating the building up process again. Don’t be surprised if, in the beginning, it takes some time for your dog to be able to bring its emotions into check, be patient, I assure you that with repeated training like this, the calm downtime will rapidly shrink.
Aim to do this activity with your dog every day if possible, even if for only 5 minutes. Though I did it as a stand-alone exercise in the beginning, after about a month I then integrated it into everyday play sessions, making it easier and more enjoyable to do regularly.
If you play tug of war with your dog, every now and then just stop, and ask the dog to calm down. If your playing fetch, after every few throws again just ask the dog to lay down and wait until they are relaxed before continuing.
Bonus Activity: “The Ignore”
This can be a strenuous exercise for many new puppy owners as they want nothing more than to give their new friend loving attention. I complexity understand that and will admit that even I have broken this rule on occasion. But if applied the majority of the time from all members of the household, it is another effective strategy to training your dog to remain calm.
When you arrive home from extended periods away, if your dog is excited to see you, which it most likely will be, refrain from giving him attention until he is calm. This may take a lot of time in the beginning but believe me it does not take long for this time period to get shorter and shorter until it is not even perceivable. If necessary, you may even look to leverage your crate during this time if it was not already in it.
Does exercise have a lot to do with it?
Yes, exercise does have a lot to do with your dog’s energy levels, if you have not taken your dog for a walk for several days it is going to be more difficult for them to contain their excitement for the world.
This may be an obvious one and if you’re like me and have a busy schedule, you don’t even want to hear about it. But giving your dog sufficient physical exercise is an important factor in keeping a dog calm and relaxed. It is proven that a dog given regular and consistent physical exercise begins to expect activity at some point of the day and will then maintain a more composed attitude at other times of the day. Its like they learn to conserve their energy for when they really need it, like playing fetch or going to the dog park.
As explained in more depth in this article about “brain games” physical exercise is not the only way to drain your dogs daily and weekly needs. Recent research has shown that a mere 20 minutes of mental exercise is the equivalent of an hour of physical exercise. So something as simple as changing a dogs feeder to a slow feeder or puzzle feeder can have a small but significant impact in draining your dog’s energy. Tools such as these become even more important in the winter, or if you’re like us the snow when it is much more difficult to give your dog the physical exercise it needs.
Is My Dog Too Old To Train To Be Calm?
It is never too late to train a dog to be calmer, however, the older a dog gets, the more difficult it is. Take “Labrador service dogs” for example, they usually start their training at the one and a half year mark, having lived with owners who let them run riot for the time before that knowing they will see the dog off soon. Yet these dogs are trained to be the so calm, quiet and relaxed it is hard to comprehend that they had free reign for the first 18 months. This is due to the structured and consistent training they undergo after the initial period and is proof that your dog is never too old to learn new tricks as long as your willing to put in the effort to correct the behavior.