The Power of Mat Work

Recently, I have met several dogs who are constantly jumping for attention and don’t understand how to modulate their energy. These dogs are like Energizer Bunnies that are always on the go. Their body is constantly experiencing cortisol overflow and this makes the dogs have a hard time to settle down and relax. These dogs would benefit from learning how to relax using mat settle exercise to teach them the on/off switch.

Mat settle, mat work, stationing, place, etc. call it whatever you want. This is a very useful training exercise and tool to help a dog to learn to relax and dial back on the energy powerhouse. I also think this is one of the most under-utilized and practiced behaviors when talking about obedience training by the owners. There are several benefits to teach dogs this exercise:

  • When you have multiple dogs in the household, teaching the dogs to got to their mats help ensure safe space from each other so you can manage resource guarding or a young jumpy puppy annoying a slow/senior dog.
  • With a designated location (mat or platform), it serves as a visual cue to the dog so they can stay within the boundaries. This would help when working with dogs who lack of impulse control and always want to chase moving objects.
  • For a shy/fearful dog, this serves as a safety blanket/safe zone. When the dog is in the zone, he learns he can be relaxed and feel safe. The owners is responsible to ensure the safety of the dog in the zone. It also serves as a visual boundary so people walking by can be aware of the space without getting too close to the dog.
  • When you have a busy-buddy dog who is always ON, this teaches the dog to relax on the mat thus he can get into a relaxed state faster. It is also a good default behavior for a dog to learn so that he doesn’t always need to participate in action or seek attention from others.
  • You can certainly use the location of the mat to teach your dog positioning in other more advanced training.
  • For a Service Dog team, this is an important default behavior while in the public so they can be calmly staying by their handler’s side without interrupting others.

There are many ways to teach the mat settle exercise. The detailed version is explained in Dr. Overall’s Relaxation Protocol (you can do a simple Google search to find the info). I usually start with a simple treat tossing onto the mat/bed to introduce the mat settle exercise. There are two key concepts: (1) reward the dog when he’s on the mat. This makes staying on the mat valuable. (2) place the reward treats on the mat without using a clicker/marker. This is to encourage the dog to relax. The licking behavior is also a self-soothing behavior. This helps to get the dog into a relaxation state quicker than just rewarding the staying on the mat itself.

Fenix is a dog who always seeks attention and he doesn’t know how to relax. His mom told me that he would never relax and didn’t know how to stay on his bed. We worked on the mat settle exercise in our first session. Within 15 minutes, Fenix started to offer a down behavior on his mat. By the end of the session, he preferred to stay on his mat rather than jumping on me for attention or to earn his treats. His mom worked diligently with him after our session. His mom shared these photos and was impressed on how Fenix has mastered the relaxation; not only would Fenix choose to go onto to his bed without being told, he is also showing more relaxed body posture while he is on his bed. This gives his mom more free time to focus her attention at work rather than constantly trying to find ways to manage Fenix or find outlets to entertain Fenix.

From top left/top right/bottom left/bottom right, it shows how Fenix gets more relaxed as the days go by. Photo credit: Kelly

Kalani is another dog who benefits from mat settle exercise. Kalani is food motivated. But sometimes her eagerness for food leads to competing for free food when there are other dogs nearby. In the video, we worked on ignoring the food tossed on the ground. She worked on staying on her mat and ignore free food. Her reward comes from mom hand-delivers yummy treats to her!

Kalani worked on advanced mat settle with leave it. Video credit: Kat

A Dog Is Not Your Teddy Bear

Not long ago, Bailey was at his peak cuteness with his fur just long enough to have a bit of curl but not too long to get matted. He looked like a little lamb that many people want to run their fingers through his woolly coat.

Due to his look, Bailey often gets comments such as “Ohhhh, cute dog!”, “He looks like a little lamb.” or “He looks like a teddy bear!”. Bailey’s appearance draws people’s attention but this is also his Kryptonite. He hates being stared at or touched by strangers.

Mr. Lamb & Bailey

That day, as we were sniffing the good scents in the neighborhood, a person was walking pass us and made a comment “Oh, he looks like a teddy bear!”. Just to be polite, I replied with “Thank you” and was in a hurry to get Bailey moving while he stopped and sniffed the flower. Just as I expected but failed to prevent, the person stopped and reached her hand out to stroke Bailey’s back. Bailey ignored her for the most part but the hand was on his back for longer than he would tolerate so he growled at her. The person was surprised by his response and said “Oh, I guess he just realized he was harassed by a very nice person.” I gave no comment at that moment, however, I was upset with the common expectation that many people think a cute fluffy dog should accept stranger’s “friendly touch” without giving his consent.

As much as we want to be cuddly with a cute fluffy dog, it is not the polite way to interact with a dog you don’t know. Any dog, cute or not, fluffy or not, does NOT need to accept a forced interaction from a stranger. A dog is not a teddy bear and definitely not YOUR teddy bear. When you extend your “friendly” hand into a dog’s space, you are actually invading his personal space. For a dog who has no relationship with you, doesn’t know you, that is simply a harassment that he can’t refuse. When he uses his voice or his teeth to show his discomfort, he’s then labeled as “aggressive” or “mean”.

When you see a cute little girl running around with her parent, will you go up and touch the little girl without her consent? Will you ask the parent’s permission before you interact with the little girl? I am sure you’d get the permission before you have physical contact with the little girl. It is the same with dogs.

What should you do when you see a cute dog that you really want to cuddle and put your hands on?

First, keep your hands in your pockets. Keep your distance and admire that cuteness from distance with your eyes. Remember, don’t stare directly into the dog’s eyes.

Second, ask the owner if it’s OK to interact with the dog. Once you get the permission, you should follow the owner’s instruction on how to interact. If the owner didn’t give you instruction, you should use these non-threatening poses to invite the dog to you:

  • Get to dog’s nose level. Kneel to the dog’s level if it is a small size dog so you don’t encourage the jumping.
  • Let the dog come to you. When dog approaches you, keep your body relaxed and neutral. Don’t reach your hand out just yet. Let the dog sniff you first while you are remaining neutral with your position.
  • Don’t extend your hand out for the dog to sniff. That extended hand can be seen as intrusive. Instead, put your hands on the sides of your body, or put them on your legs. Let the dog sniff them first.
  • When the dog shows interest and wants more interaction from you, then you may do a gentle scratch under the chin or chest for 3 seconds. Then stop. This gives the dog a chance to decide if he wants more from you. If he wants more, he’ll lean his body into you to solicit more interaction. If he doesn’t want more, you give him a chance to move away without barking or snapping at you. No one gets hurt physically or emotionally.
  • Never lean over a dog, crowd a dog or put your hand over a dog’s head. All these postures are threatening to a dog. If you see a dog shying away from your extended hand, don’t continue your approach. Simply stop and give him space.
  • If the dog likes treats, with owner’s permission in case of food allergy, and toss a few yummy treats BEHIND the dog. This gives the dog no pressure to come to a scary stranger for food. Once the dog finds you giving no pressure but bringing yummy treats, he’ll be more relaxed and willing to come near you.

The very last thing you want to do is to hug tightly or squeeze the dog you don’t know. Remember, all dogs have teeth and they will use them when necessary.

Now, show your friendliness via your body language in a way a dog understands. Then you can make friendly interaction with each other.