Dog Behavior and Training: Teaching Settle and Calm

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Are there physical exercises that can help my dog to settle?

Many pet owners wish their dogs would settle and be still a bit more often! Settling in the house and showing calm when approached or handled are great life skills for any dog. Like any skill, these behaviors are learned through practice. Positive reinforcement techniques can be used to teach dogs how to settle and show calm body language. However, calm on the outside does not always mean calm on the inside. Paying close attention to body language and behavior is crucial for the success of any training program.

Why is it hard for my dog to settle?

Dogs can have trouble settling if they are excited, overstimulated, overtired, fearful, distressed, or bored. Make sure your dog’s basic needs for physical exercise, social contact, nutrition, health, and comfort are met before you start training.

Which exercises will be helpful and how do I teach them?

There are so many good exercises. The following three examples are great for starting out:

Coaching Calm Game
Start in an environment without distractions. You will need your dog on a leash (not retractable) and some high-value treats and a chair or other place to sit. A mat for your dog to lie on is optional. The goal is for your dog to follow along and, when you sit down, she should calmly lie down near your feet as a default behavior. It is easier than it sounds!

In a calm frame of mind, walk to the chair and sit down. Quietly ignore your dog but observe her for signs that she is not seeking the treats, such as looking away, sniffing the ground, or lying down. Anytime she shows calm behaviors other than seeking the treats or soliciting attention, calmly and quietly place a few treats on the ground for her to find between her front paws. You want her to believe the area around your feet is a vending machine for treats, turned on by calm behavior. After three or four rewards, quietly stand up and encourage your dog to follow you away from the chair, then circle back and repeat.

Gradually, you will find your dog offering more and more periods of calm. Once she begins to check the floor quickly when you sit down, introduce lying at your feet as the way to turn on the treat machine. Use a treat to quietly lure your dog into the ‘down’ position, or just wait until she lies down (if it takes less than about 15 seconds). Avoid giving the cue to lie down – this will increase arousal/excitement. Stay calm when you deliver the reward and place it between her front paws. Soon, she will automatically settle at your feet when you sit down. Keep your enthusiasm calm to sustain calm in your dog as well.

Go to Mat with Settle
Go to mat’ is very similar to Coaching Calm but with the addition of going to a designated spot, such as a mat or dog bed. The easiest way to begin is usually to simply add the mat by your feet when you are practicing Coaching Calm. When your dog steps onto the mat and sits or lays down on the mat while staying calm and not actively soliciting treats, quietly drop some treats onto the mat. Repeat these steps, gradually waiting for her to lie down on the mat before giving the treats.

Over time, you can remove the leash and begin moving the mat further away, quietly delivering treats to the mat anytime your dog lays down on it. A cue such as “bed” or “settle” can be introduced once your dog is offering the behavior frequently. This is the foundation to later send your dog to her bed to relax on cue.

Touching Game
The Touching Game builds on Coaching Calm and is the foundation for calm during handling. The Touching Game is easy to incorporate once your dog understands how to settle.

To begin, start with the Coaching Calm game with or without a mat. When your dog settles, deliver a treat for settling as usual. Then, gently pet or touch a part of your dog’s body and quietly deliver an additional treat between her front paws. Over time, increase the number of body parts you can touch, the kinds of touch (firm, soft, slow, fast, palm, fingertips, and the duration of touch (short touch, longer periods of touch) with each touch predicting a treat appearing between her front paws. If your dog remains calm and comfortable, begin touching areas such as the ear, lips, nose, paws, and tail. This is a foundation exercise for comfort with veterinary exams and grooming.

How do I know if I’m doing it right?

Pay attention to how quickly and frequently your dog offers the desired behavior in the context of the exercise. Count how many seconds it takes. Is it getting faster day by day? Count in your head how many seconds your dog chooses to hold the settle position. Is it getting easier for her to remain calm for longer periods? Can you increase the amount of time in between treats without the quality of the behavior decreasing? If so, you are on the right track. When you see success in quiet, familiar environments, begin introducing small distractions and changes in the environment, watching for continued success. Over time, your dog can learn to calmly settle in a variety of environments and situations – just remember to go at your dog’s pace and back up if the success rate diminishes.

If your dog is showing other types of body language or is not progressing, it might be time for a coaching session with an experienced positive reinforcement trainer. If your dog is comfortable with Coaching Calm and Go to Mat but is uneasy about the Touching Game, consider professional coaching to avoid developing a fear of handling and touching.

Related Articles