Thursday, December 5, 2013

Cannon and the Magical Treat Blanket

I love mat work. It's one of the foundation behaviors for my horde of dogs. Sit, stay, touch, come, and mat all get started as soon as I bring home any new dog. I love it because it's a very versatile exercise. I can throw a mat down, and my demo dog will stay there while I teach class. I can use it to ensure my decoy dog will hold a certain position while working with a student and their reactive dog. For shy dogs like Maus, it gives them a safe place to be. For working dogs like Rubi, it gives them something to do. I can have my dog settle on their mat while I eat - both inside and outside the house. I can use the mat as a way to cue the dog as to where I want them when I'm taking pictures. The list goes on and on!
Maus knows the mat is a safe zone.
Piper is happy to have a job to do while Friend Crystal and I eat lunch at an outdoor cafe.

The first step to teaching a good "go to mat" behavior is choosing the correct mat for your dog. Not all mats are created equal! Because I use our mat work for precise body positioning, I make sure my mats are rectangular and just a little bigger than the dog. If the mat is too big, the dog can lay all over it and still be correctly on the mat. If it's too small, it won't be as comfortable for the dog to lay on, and I won't have a easy way to tell the dog where I want him to put his hind end.

Mats should be thin enough to be easily portable but thick enough to provider some insulation and padding against the ground. You'll also want to take into account how, ahem, enthusiastic your dog is when you choose a mat. Allister, for instance, is small and precise, so a fleece blanket is fine for him. Rubi, on the other hand, is bigger and tends to throw her weight around as much as possible, so we have a sturdy, thick mat from K9 Fleece Designs for her. I've also seen bath mats, yoga mats, crate pads, and simple towels work just fine for dogs. Cannon is Allister-sized and easy going, so I'll teach him his "mat" cue with Allister's mat. Don't tell Allister.

Now that I've chosen our mat, I want to teach Cannon that his mat is the Best. Thing. Ever. I use shaping to teach matwork because I believe it creates a stronger behavior that is better understood by the dog (because he had to figure it out himself).  So I start matwork by marking and rewarding any interaction Cannon has with the mat. This means that the first time I take the mat out, I click and treat Cannon for looking at the mat. Then I hide the mat, pull it out again, and click/treat for looking at the mat. I do this a few times, and then, instead of just showing him the mat, I throw it down on the floor. Then, I click and give him a whole pile of treats on the mat when he runs over to check it out. The hardest part of shaping is keeping the sessions short and sweet so the dog doesn't get tired of thinking/bored, so here ends the first lesson.
"Standing on my mat is the Best Game Ever!"

It might take one lesson or five, but once I have a solid "go to the mat" behavior - Cannon sees the mat and immediately goes to it - I start generalizing the behavior. I don't usually wait for a full go-to-mat-and-lay-down-and-relax behavior before I start generalizing. This is because experience has taught me that if you wait for the full lay-down-and-relax behavior before you start generalizing, the dog often thinks that the game is to lay down and relax in front of you as oppose to on the mat. So once the dog is going to his mat reliably, I start changing the position of my body in relation to the mat. For example, I may back an extra step away from the mat, or put the mat next to me, or even simply sit down and ask Cannon to go to the mat. When he gets stuck, I make it easier for him, waving the blanket around a bit and mark/rewarding him for looking or touching the mat, just like we did in the beginning. It isn't long before Cannon figures out that the game is to go to the mat no matter what position I'm in.

After I have good drive to the mat no matter where it is, I start asking Cannon to lay down on the mat. Since I'm shaping, I wait until he offers down-like behaviors on the mat. So I will mark/reward him if he sits on the mat, or if he drops his head to sniff the mat, or if he crouches on it. The first time he lays down on the mat, he gets a jackpot of treats. One or two jackpots later, and the behavior looks the way I want it to: Cannon runs to mat and lays down.
"Laying awkwardly on my mat is the Best Game Ever!"

Once I have the finished behavior, it's just a matter of adding duration to it. I use a random reinforcement rate to accomplish this. So I'll give Cannon a cookie for laying on the mat for two seconds, then for laying there for five, then three, then eight, and so on, gradually increasing the time between cookies until the dog will lay there for minutes at a time. Once I have a little duration, I start generalizing our mat behavior to different environments and situations - mats go everywhere with us, and I use them all the time.

I like mat work because it gives me more flexibility when working with my dogs in new situations. Cannon likes the mat because it's fun - he sits on the mat and treat magically appear. He's enjoying himself, and I don't have to worry about him wandering off and getting into trouble. It's a win/win game - exactly what I want training my dog to be.

"Magical treat blanket is the Best Game Ever!"


  1. Super post! I just love mat work and am so happy I discovered it for Ruby. I do need to upgrade her mat though - it tends to slip on my floors when she goes to it enthusiastically, and isn't quite big enough.

    That last picture of Cannon is precious! So happy!

  2. This is something that we're definitely interested in adding to our pooches routine. I'll be using your tips!