Puppies Need an Off Switch! (Puppy Lesson Four)

So how many of you with puppies out there wish sometimes that you could flip a switch to turn them off, just for a little bit? Catch your breath, do the dishes, sit down for just a minute?

I have it on pretty good authority that most of the puppies would also appreciate having an off switch, too! Just as human babies can get all wound up without knowing how to come down on their own, puppies get overwound too.

Some of the advice that gets passed around is off the mark.  Owners of high-energy dogs are told to exercise them more and more to burn off the energy. Every time the dog leaves the house it’s for a rousing run or play time. While stimulation and exercise are vitally important, taken by themselves, they can actually exacerbate the problem of being wound up. The dog rehearses a pattern of arousal.

That’s why learning to relax and settle is an important life skill. Marge is really good at teaching it, in my opinion. She teaches “relax” as a behavior, just like teaching sit, down and come. And it’s a win/win for puppy and caregiver.

Black and white parti-colored Portuguese Water Dog puppy in a bright blue plastic kid's pool. The dog is on his stomach with his back legs stretched out straight behind him.

Zip takes relaxation to a whole new level

Resources

There are many, many resources for this. A lot of what Marge does with her dogs, including what you will see with Zip, is from the work of Leslie McDevitt (Control Unleashed, Control Unleashed– The Puppy Program, Control Unleashed Seminar DVD) and Dr. Karen Overall.

Lots of other trainers have methods for teaching this behavior, too.  Sue Ailsby teaches it in her Training Levels program.  Nan Arthur has a method in Chill Out Fido, Laura VanArendonk Baugh has a whole book about it, and Emily Larlham has some videos. I have some resources here in the blog as well. You can search the blog under “1,000 Treats” to see Clara’s progress in relaxation. 

The goal of all of these methods is far beyond just getting the dog to stay still. It is to teach the dog to chill out and relax.

From Practice to the Real World

Being able to recover and think through increasing levels of arousal can be taught. Most people play with their dogs and puppies without breaks. But breaks allow the puppy to reset, and to learn how to transition between different states of excitement and arousal. They also can keep the pup from going over the top. 

In the movie, you will first see Zip relaxing in a non-challenging situation. Then Marge transitions him back and forth between relaxing and getting up to play.  Marge works with lots of puppy owners, and has them start with play increments of 5 seconds (one banana, 2 banana, up to 5.). Reset/relax, then start again. Gradually increase duration and difficulty.

At 1:06, watch Zip’s right front leg. He is not just lying down; he is relaxing his muscles. Later you can see him also change his breathing when asked to relax. I’ve watched the movie several times, and keep seeing other aspects of the relaxation.  In the last tug session, between the 2:00 and 3:00 minute marks, Zip is growling–a symptom of high arousal for him. You can see how hard he has to work to control himself when Marge asks him to release the tug and relax. “Ohhhh I wanna bite that shoe……but I won’t.” This is yet another version of impulse control.

Take note as well, how Marge reinforces Zip for the relaxed behavior. She is using food rewards, delivered with soft body language right to his mouth. Nothing active, no tossing treats. This is in contrast to the active play with the toy during the “up” states.

The final part of the movie shows a real world application. You can’t see it in the movie, but while Zip is chilling on the floor at the animal hospital, there are two very active toddlers and another dog nearby. This is where you can see yet another benefit of playing tug with a puppy (with a rule structure such as Marge uses).  Environmental stressors can also bring about an aroused state. A dog doesn’t have to be jumping around to get over-excited. But playing tug has helped Zip learn how to “come down” from that state, and his lessons carry over beautifully to the new environment.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

 Just like last time, this is another lesson on how to teach a puppy not to do something using positive reinforcement-based training. Notice all the things Zip is not doing?

  • Biting
  • Running around screaming
  • Stealing the toy and running away
  • Leaping up to investigate the other dog or the kids at the vet

All because Marge has “filled in the blanks” with desirable behaviors, and is teaching Zip at a very young age how to calm down.

How about you all? Does your puppy have an off switch? Also, any guesses about Lesson Five? Because we have left out something BIG!

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (all)

Other Good Stuff

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Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek.Eileen Anderson on Google+
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7 Responses to Puppies Need an Off Switch! (Puppy Lesson Four)

  1. Andi says:

    I can’t wait to read “Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work””. No pressure!! 🙂 Thanks for all the great info!

    • eileenanddogs says:

      Hey, thanks for mentioning! I feel badly sometimes with my “Coming up” teasers. I take a Looooong time to get them done, and sometimes end up not doing them at all. That one is a little stuck because I am lacking some video that I would prefer to have. But–long story short–I will never get that video. So I’d better write the post anyway! Thanks, Andi!

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  3. Robin J. says:

    Nice post! I love McDevitt’s term for this in the CONTROL UNLEASHED PUPPY book: “attention management.”

    Many of the dogs Leslie works with are doing dog sports like Agility. They’re expected to be high drive, high energy dogs. Leslie’s point is that even with “performance puppies,” dogs intended for a future career in a high energy activity, helping a puppy learn how to relax in between performances is essential for the long term health and welfare of the dog.

    She even has a chapter on what to do with puppies who get so excited by just the presence of treats that they can’t focus. It sounds funny until you start trying to train one of these pups! 🙂

    Every dog is different: some need more help building drive and some need more help learning to relax. So I really like Leslie’s concept of attention management as covering the whole spectrum, no matter where an individual dog’s typical default falls.

  4. I like to think that Donna is pretty calm because we focused on rewarding calm behaviours right from the start. But then we chose to adopt an older dog because we didn’t want to deal with an energetic puppy too… so I can’t really tell which has more influence 😛

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