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Cultivating Calmness

In concept training we aim to build different concepts in the dog’s brain to shape their brain and therefore change their emotions and behaviours.

In this blog we will focus on the concept of Calmness. Calmness as an emotional and behavioural state is often one that is taken for granted and consequently often overlooked in training. Yet, it is probably the most important concept in terms of overall behaviour, wellbeing, and health.

Calmness is like a ‘vaccination’ against stress! It is impossible to be calm and stressed at the same time. It is becoming increasingly recognised that long-term stress is detrimental to emotional and physical wellbeing and health. Stress causes physical changes that affect how the body (dog or human) functions and most of these changes are not good.

What can we do?

Since calmness and stress cannot exist together, cultivating calmness is an effective way to protect your dog from the detrimental effects of stress. It is also a useful behavioural strategy – calm dogs do not tend to get up to mischief or get themselves into trouble by engaging in behaviours that cause upset to humans and other dogs. By this I mean calm dogs are less likely to engage in behaviours like excessive barking, jumping up, mouthing, fence fighting, constantly seeking attention, getting into dog fights, chasing other animals or vehicles, stealing food off counters……

We know that rewarding a behaviour will result in more of that behaviour. Calmness is a behaviour that we often fail to reinforce by rewarding it, and so we don't tend to get as much of it as we would like. Often when we think about behaviour, we tend to think about the dog actively ‘doing something’ – like jumping up’. When a dog is calm, often he will be lying down quietly, and the owner will say ‘But he’s not doing anything’. THIS IS EXACTLY THE POINT! Because he is not ‘doing anything’ we often miss the opportunity to reward the behaviour that we want. We do not reward ‘doing nothing’, and yet this is exactly what we need to do to cultivate calmness.

When rewarding calmness, we need to think, not just about noticing when you dog is being calm as an opportunity for rewarding, but we need to think about ‘how’ we deliver the reward. Often when rewarding our dogs, we tend to be a bit upbeat, with a raised energy level. Rewarding in this way is likely to increase the dog’s energy levels and consequently interrupt the calm behaviour.

I like the idea of ‘Ninja’ rewarding which was coined by the Absolute Dogs team. Think about how a Ninja gets in and out of an environment quietly and stealthily without anyone noticing them. We need to aim to deliver the reward in the same way. Approaching quietly and calmly and placing the reward by your dog’s nose so that he can take it without having to move, and then withdrawing quietly and calmly. It is important for you to be calm and quiet so as not to disturb your dog. Find lots of opportunities to reward your dog throughout the day when he’s lying quietly and before you know it, your dog will become increasingly calm and will begin to choose to lie down quietly when there’s nothing going on that needs his involvement.

Another way we can reward calmness is by ‘auto-rewarding’. This is when the dog essentially rewards itself. We do this by providing things that the dog needs to lie down quietly to do. Things like licking at a stuffed Kong, using a Licki mat to deliver a food reward, or having a bone to chew. In this situation, the dog makes an association between the behaviour of lying down with the reward of licking or chewing, so he effectively gets a reward that is delivered the whole time he is engaged in the behaviour, in this case lying down quietly and calmly – and he does it himself – how cool is that!

So, now we have two ways of working with your dog to cultivate calmness that will have several knock-on effects in your life together. Your dog will have adequate rest which is important for health and wellbeing. Your dog will have better focus on you when you need it. Your dog will get into less trouble which means less stress for you and a better and more harmonious relationship between you. What more could you want, and all just by cultivating calmness!

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