“Rambo, DOWN!” The owners screamed frantically, attempting to regain control of this rather wild dog.
I had just walked into a consultation with Rambo, a fifty pound, 2-year-old Boxer. I had worked with many boxers over the course of my training career and knew exactly what to expect upon arrival. They had filled out a form upon enlisting in my help, and I recall the words “crazy” and “unmanageable” attached to the segment where I ask what the owners greatest concerns are in training. I entered, where Rambo was very eager to see me and had no compunctions about expressing himself. He was manic, his pupils fully dilated, slobber flinging all over the place as he barked fervently, I do believe his paws touched the floor for a half a second during the initial introduction. This was greatly overshadowed by the fact that I seemed to be dealing with a dog who had a built-in pogo stick somewhere in his body.
“Well, is that your only problem?” I said it humorously once Rambo had been sequestered to another room, picturing a lion tamer cracking his whip to push the beasts back into their cages after their remarkable displays in the circus. The owners laughed with me as I expected they would. “The problem that I see you are having is the same problem that most people I see have. You taught him to have a good time, I can see that he is very loved by his family. But I can also see that he wasn’t ever taught to settle down.”
I spoke the truth. Rambo, like so many dogs, was never once told that he would be rewarded for calm behaviors. He was only told that happy dogs get attention, dogs that are excited get attention, and dogs who solicit attention get attention. Hyper dogs are created by owners reinforcing the very hyperactivity that they seek to correct. Think about it. When your dog comes to you with a happy, wagging tail and excitedly seeks your attention, chances are you will pet him. This is often unintentional, as we tend to subconsciously pet dogs without even thinking about it, and we don’t put much thought into what we are actually creating in these situations.
In dogs, it is much harder to untrain something than it is to train something new. This is true for humans as well. Breaking old habits is a hard thing to do for all of us. Fortunately, it is possible for your hyper dog to learn how to zen. Rambo did so with just a little bit of training and a lot of patience.
Teaching a “settle” is a great new behavior to teach your dog. I recommend that you only practice teaching the settle when your dog has been exercised. You can’t teach a settle to a dog that hasn’t received any attention all day and expects him to be calm. Take your dog for a good walk or run before you practice settle, you can even work on other basic obedience cues to get your dog into the learning mode vs. play mode. Remember that training sessions should be no longer than 5 minutes, as dogs have naturally short attention spans and learn best in small increments.
Catch the behavior. The concept of catching a behavior is that you identify and reward behaviors or actions that your dog performs without a cue from you or anyone else, thus making it more likely that the dog will repeat that behavior or action again. Settle provides a wonderful opportunity to catch a behavior. If you happen to catch your dog sleeping, take a tasty treat and leave it right in front of his nose. Don’t say anything at all. Try to be as inconspicuous as possible when you are rewarding this. Your pup will wake up to a tasty treat, which will make him start to associate sleeping with getting food rewards! Conversely, you can pet your dog and give attention when they are sleeping, just be careful to not scare him.
Lure the behavior. Luring is showing your dog something it wants, usually food, and using it to encourage the dog to move in the desired way. You can teach the settle by luring your dog into it. Lure your dog into a down behavior by bringing the treat down between his forelegs. Once your dog is in the down, wait for him to relax in some way. The tricky part of this is that you need to be certain you are rewarding the calmness, not the down. I usually wait until the dog cocks his hip to one side and looks away from the treat. You may find it will take some time for your dog to think about something other than the treat. This is normal and to be expected when you are first teaching the settle. Just be persistent and patient with your dog. When you get a moment of calm, you can tell your dog “good settle” as you reward him. If your dog can’t seem to wrap his head around being calm, that’s okay! You can always walk away and come back to this training later.
Only give affection to what you want. Overall, the success of this behavior is dependent upon your consistency. If you give attention to your dog when he is jumping around, you can almost guarantee that you will see more jumping overall. If you want a calmer, more relaxed dog, be certain that you are giving plenty of attention to your dog when he is not bouncing off the walls. The best time to engage in a game of fetch is when your dog is in the middle of a nap, not when he is dropping the ball in your lap and barking at you! If you have guests over and your dog can’t contain himself, do not allow this to be reinforced by accident! Set him up for success by removing him from the situation entirely. A great option is to give him a frozen chew in his crate whenever new people arrive. This will begin to build a strong association with calming down, finding something to chew on, and sleeping when guests are present.