Have you ever had someone tell you to smile when you're down because it will make you feel better? Did you know that it works? For humans, we've know that form follows feeling for a century or two. Smile and you feel better; frown and you feel worse. Humans and dogs are more similar than we'd like to think, and I've seen enough anecdotal evidence to believe that this physical feedback loop also applies to our canine companions. Basically, get a dog's body to form the shape of a calm dog, and it will calm the dog.
One way to do this is with conditioned relaxation. Maus and I started working on conditioned relaxation about two years ago. I have Maus lie down on his mat, and then I mark/reward him (quietly and calmly) each time he relaxes. So for instance, when he lies on the mat and shifts over to one hip, I mark and reward that. I mark and reward him for putting his head down, for relaxing his ears, for relaxing his shoulders, for deep breaths, and for any other behavior that leads to a more relaxed body. When we first started doing this, it would take about twenty minutes for Maus to truly relax at home. Now, I can pull out Maus's mat in even a busy area and have him relax within about five minutes. It's a handy tool to have for an anxious dog.
In Pia Silvani's workshop at the APDT conference, she discussed an exercise she called "forced relaxation." Many reactive dogs, Rubi included, tend to pace a lot. This extra movement works them up, which causes them to pace more, which causes them to work themselves up more, which makes them more reactive. Pia's solution is to have the dog lay on its side. When it struggles to get up, she has the handler restrain the dog until it relaxes again. Eventually, the dog learns that when it lies on its side, it has to relax because, well, it's doesn't have any other options. (Hopefully someone will correct me if I misunderstood Pia – one of my fellow trainers picked up Pia's book on Feisty Fidos, and I'll read it once I get through the books I picked up at the conference.)
If you know me or have read the blog for any length of time, you probably realize how much I dislike forcing my dogs to do pretty much anything. Rubi in particular has some bad associations with being restrained. She's been alpha rolled more than a few times, plus the fiasco that used to be getting her nails trimmed (hey, if someone pinned me down and came at my fingers with a set of bolt cutters, I'd probably pretty upset, too). On the other hand, what Pia said makes sense – dogs that move around a lot tend to work themselves up. It increases their heart rate up and boosts tension. Reactive dog behavior training is an awful lot of teaching the dog to be calm. I don't feel like Rubi is a good candidate for conditioned relaxation because her mat work just isn't strong enough. With Maus, Piper, and Allister, if I take the mat out, they're all over it to the point where they try to get on it before I even set the mat down. Rubi could take it or leave it. Since for conditioned relaxation, that mat is the cue for the relaxation, the dog has to be pretty invested in staying on the mat for it to work. I'm not saying Rubi will never be there, but she's not there yet.
For the past few weeks, Rubi and I have been working on a combination of forced and conditioned relaxation. I sit on the floor and have Rubi lay down in front of me. Then, I lure her onto her side. I mark and reward her for each relaxed behavior – for relaxing her legs, for putting her head down, the usual stuff. I also started counter conditioning her to restraint. I started by touching her shoulder and marking/rewarding her for that. Once she was okay with that (which took a few sessions), I put a little pressure on her shoulder and marked/rewarded her for that. Eventually, I was able to give her a massage. Massage isn't really a part of restraint, but who doesn't like a little back rub when they're trying to relax? Around this time, when she would try to get up before I released her, I would use that counter conditioned pressure on the shoulder to stop her. It's not a lot of pressure; no more than I'd say I use to hold her collar when I'm putting her leash on. If Rubi really wanted to get up, she could – and did on several occasions. After which I'd refocus her and ask her to lie down again. Rubi seemed to really dig these sessions at home. Of course, the real test came when class started again on Wednesday. How did it go?
I think the pictures speak for themselves: