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.
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.
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?
- 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!