Will You PLEASE Calm Down?!
Dogs who can’t seem to calm down are a never-ending source of frustration for their owners. The problem is that most people try to get their dogs to calm down when the dog is already overly exuberant, and they don’t train the calm behavior in the first place. The time to train calm behavior is when the dog is already being calm.
The easiest way to train calm behavior is to reward it when it is happening. To do that, you’re going to need to adjust your own behaviors first. If you’re free-feeding your dog, stop. We’re going to use their food as a reward for good behavior. That never works if the dog is never hungry. It’s OK for your dog to have to work for food. After all, you are probably working to earn the money to pay for your dog’s food!
Twice Daily Feeding
You’re going to start feeding your dog twice per day. That’s what Dr. Meghan recommends for their health anyway. However you’re NOT going to dump all their breakfast and dinner into a bowl and have them gobble it up in 2 seconds. Depending on your schedule, you’re going to withhold the meal that you’d give when you are going to be home for a while. If for example you feed the dog then leave for work, then feed breakfast but withhold dinner. If you’re home during the day but after dinner you’re running around taking the kids to their various activities or you work at night, withhold breakfast and just feed them dinner.
If you have a large dog, put about 50 kibbles in the treat pouch, and save the rest for later. After they’ve earned their 50 kibbles, you can feed them the rest of their meal. If you have a smaller dog, 50 kibbles may be all they get!
SMART Training for Calm Behavior
SMART stands for See, Mark, and Reward Training. Choose 1-2 behaviors that you want to see in your dog. In this case, you are going to reward calm behavior, such as resting or calmly chewing one of their toys. Whenever you SEE your dog perform these chosen behaviors, MARK the behavior by saying “good” or click or whistle, and then REWARD your dog with a couple of kibbles. The key is to remain calm: this is not the time for your ultra-happy voice. Place the kibbles on the floor right in front of your dog’s nose so they don’t have to get up to eat. You don’t want to use a high-value treat for this exercise because it will make your dog too excited. That’s why we’re using boring kibble, but they should still be hungry so they appreciate the food.
This doesn’t take but a few minutes of your time and for the most part, you can go about your day or evening as normal. There’s no need to set aside 30-60 minutes per day for training. With 50 repetitions of calm behavior every day, your dog will begin to understand exactly what you want.
Recommended Tools to Teach Calm Behavior
Technically, you don’t need anything to teach your dog calm behavior. You can carry kibble in your pockets or stash some around the house so whenever you see your dog being calm, there is food around to reward them. You don’t need a clicker or a whistle or any other special marker either; you can use your voice.
That said, I’m not a fan of crumbs in my pockets, if my clothes today even have pockets. And I don’t like food laying all around my house. So I use a treat pouch. Sometimes I train my dogs with a clicker, and sometimes I use my voice. It just depends on what else I’m doing. If I’m watching TV, I have a free hand for the clicker. If I’m working, I don’t have a free hand so I just use my voice. I am going to buy a whistle for recall since the clicker sound doesn’t travel well outside. But I won’t be whistling in my house.
The ideal treat pouch can be carried multiple ways keeping your hands free. It should be easy for you to reach into and grab one or more items. You don’t want to be fumbling with zippers or drawstrings and whatnot. It should also be easy to clean either in the washing machine or dishwasher. And of course non-toxic.
2-pack of Aoklant silicon treat pouches, perfect for holding any kind of treat or food. I especially like them for moist treats like hot dog or chicken bits. These are non-toxic food-grade silicon and dishwasher safe. Multiple colors are available. I use these on short walks and around the house for training. They can only be clipped to your belt or pants.
This Mighty Paw treat pouch is nice for walks because it has an area for your keys, wallet, and phone, plus a poop bag dispenser. It can be worn 3 ways: around your waist, cross-body, or over the shoulder. The pouch has a magnetic closure, making it easy to get your hands into the pouch but difficult for food to fall out.
The Invirox is a large treat pouch with an extra big opening for those of us with larger hands. It has a small pocket for your personal things, so maybe not as good as the Mighty Paw for longer excursions if that’s all you’re bringing. But if you have a backpack to hold other things, this is a nice pouch.
The Oria treat pouch is unique in that it has 2 inner bags that can hold different kinds of treats. You can fill one bag with high-value treats for highly distracting situations, and the other side with lower value treats. Varying the treats also helps to more strongly reinforce good behavior. The inner bag is removable and the entire pouch is machine washable.
Clicker or Whistle (optional)
Not everyone uses a clicker to train; some people use only voice, and others use different markers such as a whistle. For a deaf dog you may use a flashlight or a flag. My dogs know that “good” is the same as a clicker. I’m going to try a whistle because sometimes I don’t want to use my voice and I don’t always have a free hand for a clicker. After a good hockey game, I may not have the voice option anyway!
The Oyefly clickers come with a clip that can be attached to a leash or treat pouch, as well as being worn around your wrist.
A 7-pack of basic clickers, one for everyone in the family, or to stash around the house for easy access.
Petsby dog whistle is audible to human ears. It allows hands-free marking for good behavior.
If you’re not sure if you want a clicker or whistle, or like me want to use both, here’s a package with 2 clickers and 2 whistles. Perfect!
I like training calm behavior with kibble because it doesn’t encourage over-excitement due to super-tasty treats. I save the really yummy stuff for more difficult behaviors, such as walking on a loose leash with lots of distractions. Training with dog food doesn’t risk providing too many calories or unbalancing their diet. Choose a high-quality life stage-appropriate diet. Personally, my active huskies eat Purina ProPlan Sport.
The Next Step in Teaching Calm Behavior
Using SMART, it should take about a week for your dog to understand that calm behavior is rewarded. Obviously, that’s easy when nothing is happening. But when the kids come home with a new friend, someone rings the doorbell, you’re preparing food, you’re at a dog-friendly pub: those are times when a dog is more likely to overreact. So you need a cue to ask the dog to perform a specific behavior that is incompatible with spazzing out. You need to teach the dog “place” which means go somewhere comfortable and chill the heck out. Since you’ve already taught your dog that calm behavior is rewarded, this is an easy task. Check out Part 2 of Teaching Calm Behavior in Dogs.
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