How can I get my puppy / dog to calm down, amuse themselves or go to sleep? Something I get asked a lot, usually by exasperated owners who want to spend their evenings relaxing, not fighting off the ever-increasingly forceful, bitey or noisy attentions of their canine companions. For many puppy owners, or those of us who like to take on older rescue dogs with limited training history, finding the off-switch is key to developing a good relationship with our dog.
Take my last foster, the angelic-looking little Flo who came to us after being dumped at the vets with a badly broken leg. Flo was the very definition of a high-needs puppy. Masses of energy, except when I wanted her to get up in the morning. Very affectionate, to the extent that she screamed if people didn’t stop to make a fuss of her in the street. Zero frustration tolerance – see the screaming if ignored, which escalated to biting very quickly if not well-managed – and hardly any appetite so managing and training with food was rarely successful. And, because of the broken and pinned leg, she was only allowed minimal physical exercise, no games, no tuggy, no playing with other dogs for most of the time she was with us (10 months in the end). As the people who lived and worked with me for those 10 months would testify, she tested every bit of my patience, knowledge and creativity, and then some. I loved her to bits, especially when she was asleep 😉
Left to her own devices, Flo would spend the evenings in a whirlwind of screaming, biting, and no doubt throwing herself on and off sofas or doing the wall of death around the house if she’d been allowed. Even if we’d been willing to live with that kind of behaviour, which we weren’t (see Riley’s anxiety above which was a result of one of Flo’s early tantrums), it simply wasn’t possible to let Flo rampage around unchecked because of her injury. Plus, the more a dog (or any of us) practice something, the better we get at doing it. Anything we practice is more likely to become a default behaviour, something we do without thinking or because it has become internally rewarding. Which is why leaving a puppy to bark in their crate overnight is more likely to result in a dog who barks as a first choice behaviour, than to teach a puppy that barking for attention or when fearful doesn’t work. So, as with all behaviour you don’t like, the first step is to manage situations so your puppy or dog cannot continue to do whatever it is.
If you know the things that will trigger the behaviour – in this case the attention-seeking, boredom-busting screaming, biting, and general being a menace that Flo would quickly have progressed to PhD level if left un-checked – then you can plan ahead to divert, distract and prevent the behaviour from happening, which also means you can change it more easily. Often, by preventing a behaviour from happening, it will drop out of the behavioural repertoire of the dog as other new, and hopefully more successful or acceptable, behaviours take its place.
Flo spent her days with me, and Riley, in my office at work. She got plenty of human contact, frequent visitors, short training sessions and was generally pretty settled at work (although the terror I felt the time I walked back into my office to find her sitting on my desk whilst still supposedly immobile will stay with me forever – like all good behaviour people I took a photo before remedying the situation slowly and calmly 😉 ). By the evenings, she wanted to run, play and be a puppy, which she couldn’t do. Of course, by the evenings all I wanted was to chill on the sofa with the dogs and a glass of wine. Teaching her to self settle became a priority.
It’s not just puppies who need an off-switch. There are many adult dogs who have never learned to relax, or to amuse themselves without getting in to trouble. In many cases owners are advised to tire the dogs out with lots of physical exercise, or to give increasing amounts of mental stimulation. The danger with using physical exercise to tire a dog is that you just end up with an even fitter dog who needs increasing amounts of exercise to tire them out, something that’s unsustainable for most owners, and potentially opening up a range of physical problem for the dog. It’s also avoiding the root cause of the problem, which is that the dog doesn’t know how to relax. And, whilst I am a huge fan of mental stimulation for dogs, too much can be just as problematic as not enough. Dogs do best with more sleep than many people think they require – some authors suggest around 17 hours is optimum for most dogs – but often they need help to establish good sleep patterns and the ability to switch off.
As with any training, consistency is key. For Flo I implemented a strict routine with a short walk after work, home for tea (if she’d eat – a whole other story which I’ll return to later – and then she got my full attention for a play / training session where I mixed learning new things (like claw clipping is fun) with self control behaviours, so if she wanted the toy to play with she had to offer (not be cued) a sit in order to get it. Finally, I introduced a ‘Finished’ signal, which told her that we’d finished interacting and it was time to entertain herself. I gave the signal and then offered her a chew toy (or similar) on her bed to keep her entertained. If she couldn’t settle to eat that on her own, I would work on the self settle (as described in the handout Training a dog to be calm) using pate as her reward with her on lead, on her bed. Gradually she learned how to chill out in the evenings, and I always had a selection of chews to keep her entertained when necessary.
And, in case you’re worried about Riley’s earlier anxiety about Flo, they became good friends. When allowed they would play bitey faces and chase games together for hours. We missed her when she left for her forever home; but then we found Cooper and started a whole new adventure.
We teach dogs how to be calm in all our Developing Puppies or Developing Dogs Beginners Life Skills training classes. We also run specific Self Control seminars and workshops. For more information see our classes and workshops page.