Why can’t my dog calm down? I take them on long hikes and runs on the beach and then at home, after a short nap, they’re up again pinging around the house.
Dogs, unfortunately, aren’t automatically calm, they don’t come out of the box that way. They need to be taught this just like any other behavior. They truly are much like humans if you think about it. Dogs and humans are very efficient and they do more of whatever they have practiced. What I mean by that is that if I am training for a marathon (which by the way would never happen), I would run, I would run a lot. And the more I ran the more I would become very efficient and could run more and more. Dogs are the same way, if I take my dog out for a walk and then another walk, and then longer walks, my dog will become very efficient and walks will not only become easier but my dog will need longer or more walks to satisfy this desire that has grown. Similarly, if I ran every day, I would be very unsatisfied if I suddenly had to sit at a desk for hours. The desire to run has grown and become a habit.
But dogs need exercise, right? Right. But each dog and their family’s lifestyle are different, and equally important, exercise is also variable. For instance, some people may “need” an hour a day of vigorous exercise to feel good. Some others, maybe a 20 minute walk instead with a little yoga thrown in works perfectly. Older dogs need less exercise as do some specific breeds. Then of course, there’s the pup rockets. These dogs seem to be able to go and go and never stop. Do they “need” hours of exercise to be fit and in good health? Most likely not.
Dogs left to their own devices would most likely wander around our neighborhoods and streets, scavenging for food. They might even cover miles as they wander in their search but this is not at a high speed pace. It is more likely trotting, walking, and sniffing. Does this sound familiar? It should, this is how they walk with you.
But these hypothetical dogs don’t get much rest. They don’t sleep very deeply and I suspect they don’t sleep as soundly due to possible predators and threats. They need to stay sharp. I also imagine that our own dogs come to us with this warning system hardwired. They need to stay safe and therefore don’t let their guard down easily.
So dogs in general are not calm and relaxed by nature. We may be lucky enough to have a dog that settles pretty easily in the house but anywhere outside of the home, they may be on high alert. However, we can teach them to be calm in more places and for longer times; getting back to dogs and humans doing more of what they have practiced.
We need to think about calmness as a recipe using a combination of ingredients, Passive Rest, Boundary, Limit Choices, No Routine.
Let’s start with passive rest. Passive rest activities are those that the dog does naturally or that you do with your dog. Think of massage or slow petting, feeding with a Kong or lick mat or scatter feed (tossing food out in the yard).
This is when our dog chooses a boundary (bed, mat, crate) on their own to rest. We want to reinforce their choice and that the boundary they have chosen is, in fact, a wonderful place. We do this by rewarding their choice through sneaky feed. We simply drop part of their daily food allowance (treats or food) on the boundary.
Our dogs make several choices throughout the day; rather to follow us from room to room or chase that pesky squirrel that taunts them in the yard. So all day long they make choices and these choices empty their emotional bucket very quickly. Think about your own will power, you get up in the morning and are ready to start off with all the good habits you intended but by the afternoon and a million decisions, you find yourself slipping off the good habit wagon and woof down a chocolate donut on the way home (a silly example, I’m sure). Likely, our dogs go through something similar but instead of the donut, they might lunge at a jogger or jump on the dining room table simply because they don’t have the energy to make a better choice. To help our dogs actively rest and not make choices, we utilize crates, pens, kennels, quiet yards, and small rooms. Basically, a place that our dog understands is safe and will not require them to make choices.
Since we have a habit of getting into a routine, we tend to carry that over to our dogs. Unfortunately, there is a lot of information that says that’s what a dog needs: routine. Guess what? They don’t. In fact, in most cases it is detrimental to creating a calm dog. Why? Because if for example, I have a dog who is super excited about walks and for months or even years, day in and day out, they go for a walk at exactly 9 am, what is the emotional state of my dog at 9 am? You guessed it, climbing the walls, jumping up and down, frantically barking, etc. If on the other hand, my dog never knows when they might go for a walk then I don’t get that release of stress hormones because I have removed the predictability. Yes, they may get excited when they see the leash but that too, is a routine and we can change that as well by changing outcomes when we reach for the leash.
Really calm is queen. By changing up our routine, using an assortment of yummy chews, add in some petting and massage with lots of rest in a safe place, and reinforcing home boundaries, we can have the perfect recipe for a calm, relaxed dog. Who needs donuts?