Setting Realistic Dog Training Goals: Mat Work
Last week we talked about limits: figuring out what our dogs’ limits are and how to honor them.
The other side to that coin, though, is knowing which limits to push and how. Otherwise, you risk becoming stagnant. Pushing limits, too, helps expand your dog’s world bit by tiny, incremental bit.
When I talk about pushing Cooper’s limits and setting training goals for him, I try to think of what my long-term goal is first, then work backwards. What is my desired outcome?
Right now, I’m focused on a big one.
Of course, that’s a vague concept, but there’s one specific behavior we need to work on: his mat.
Long ago, we worked with an amazing trainer in New Orleans. One of the things she pointed out is his reliance on routine and predictability. We took a walk around our neighborhood, and she noticed that he knew every single house in the entire neighborhood that had a dog in the yard because he would tense up before we got there. An unexpected dog showed up in a yard he didn’t know?
Flip Out City: Population 1.
Same thing with, for instance, a bench at the bus stop. It was plastered with a real estate agent’s face and phone number. He spotted that face from the car and lost it. Or when the church on the corner set out their nativity scene with nearly-life-sized statues. Gonzo.
The trainer called it “strange pictures.” He didn’t like things out of his ordinary. He still doesn’t. If something looks weird or is unpredictable or unexpected, it’s not to be trusted. So, he barks.
He’s always been that way with movement, too. If someone trips (me), he barks. If someone dances in the kitchen while cooking dinner (me), he barks. If someone shrieks and runs around with arms waving (small children), he barks.
Out-of-the-ordinary movement startles him. He barks.
Oddly enough, he has not barked at Violet. I think there are two reasons why: First, he thinks she hung the moon. He just adores her, and I know he realizes that he needs to be careful around her because I can see him modifying his behavior when she’s around. He’s been like that since day one.
Second, her developing movement has happened gradually. She went from being a little lump to wiggling to rolling to scootching to crawling incrementally over the course of eight months.
Now, though, she’s almost 10 months. She’s crawling at top speed. She’s pulling up on everything, falling over, sitting up, falling over, dancing, clonking her head, giving me a heart attack about 975 times a day. She also chatters little baby jargon and shrieks her head off all day long. In fact, her go-to move when she spots one of the animals is to start shrieking with glee and crawling at top speed toward them. Of course, they see/hear her coming and skedaddle before she can get there… to her disappointment…
Anyway, we’ve been lucky that this developing movement has been so gradual, but I want to prevent Coop from starting up his usual barking response if, when she starts actually standing and toddling, that movement makes him uncomfortable. I don’t know that it will, but I want to focus on preventative training.
Specifically, circling back to almost 600 words ago, impulse control.
So, my training goal for the month ahead is to reinforce (erm, restart) his mat work. You guys, we tried to get through the whole Relaxation Protocol twice. I’ll take the blame for our failure to complete the entire thing. The system is sound but I don’t know… We worked on a modified version with our trainer in New Orleans, so I think I might start there then decide if we could benefit from the entire protocol. (Anyone who’s seen it through: worth it???) Since then, we’ve sort of lowered our criteria and accepted him going to either his mat or his bed when we mean to send him to his mat. Gotta work on that…
Bottom line: My goal for Cooper for February is to work on proofing his “on your mat” cue during calm moments, gradually increasing his criteria to chill on his mat (probably with a stuffed food puzzle) in the living room while we’re playing with Violet.
It’s actually the perfect time to be working on this, too, since we’re already mostly stuck in the house with this seemingly-unending winter! Might as well train!
I think we have relatively little time before she’s up and about, toddling and falling all over the place. I’ve been thinking through this plan loosely, and I think February is the month to reinforce the basics, then in March we’ll tackle sending him to his mat to relax with increased distraction.