If you've ever taken a class with me or you've worked with me privately, the chances are REALLY good that you've heard me talk about this particular tool for training with your SideKick. No, I'm not talking about treats or rewards (though, those are, of course, really important).
I'm talking about a mat.
Now, when I say "mat," I'm referring to really anything portable:
A mat, such as an indoor/outdoor mat with rubber on the bottom; or it could be a bath mat; I've had some folks use a yoga mat even!
A bed of any kind or size
A rug, such as a kitchen rug or even just a carpet square
An beach towel or hand towel
A blanket - it can be store-bought or even just a remnant of fleece from a craft store!
I also prefer the mat to be machine-washable - because I do mean everywhere when I say that I like to take this tool with us everywhere - but that's personal preference. Throughout this post, I'll be referring to a mat, but, regardless of what you choose to use, the concepts behind the tool remain the same!
And the concepts aren't new at all! While I'd love for someone to think I'm super brilliant for teaching them about this tool, I certainly cannot take credit!
I learned about using a mat when I was taking my Ruby to classes at the Wisconsin Humane Society;
I read about using a mat in Laura VanArendonk Baugh's book, "Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out: Training Crazy Dogs from Over the Top to Under Control" as a baby trainer years ago;
And I've practiced using the mat at the two Chirag Patel conferences I've attended over the past couple of years.
The concepts aren't new and they WORK - that's why so many trainers like to use it in so many different ways!
WAYS I LIKE TO USE THE MAT
Overall, the mat is treated as a target; in many of the ways I use it, it's a place for your dog to go; it's a very visual and physical reminder of where a dog can go and what they can be doing at a particular point in time. That in mind, there are a few ways that I love to use the mat in my daily life with my own dog and when working with my clients:
Providing a Station
As mentioned, a mat is a very visual and physical reminder of where a dog can be. If your dog is on their mat, they cannot be...well, some place else! I love using a mat:
As a place for your dog to be during meal times or while you're enjoying a snack on the couch
As a spot to be in the kitchen (that isn't underfoot or surfing the counters)
As a good place to be when you're grilling out or you're enjoying a campfire on the back patio, etc.
The mat provides a station for your dog that is more rewarding than elsewhere; it keeps them safe, keeps your mind at peace, and, as mentioned, it gives your dog a place and activity that isn't mischief in another room.
I LOVE the mat as a tool for encouraging and rewarding relaxed, calm behavior. Since the mat, bed, blanket, or whatever you're using is often a place your dog sits or lays or relaxes, it's usually easy to get and reward behavior that is relaxed. The mat becomes a place where your dog can and is relaxed, which is useful in a variety of situations!
It's really a simple process: reward anything relaxed or calm on the mat. At least in the beginning, it can be anything - moving to the mat, touching it, standing on it, sniffing it, sitting on it, laying on it, etc.; as you're working on the behavior, though, I typically tell folks to start looking for the most relaxed things and rewarding those the most. We might start looking for the laying down the most and looking for the hips to tip one way or the other, laying on the side, putting the head down, etc. Sometimes, especially with puppies, it can feel like we're taming a wild animal and it's one of the coolest things to see happening!
Just like it can be hard for us humans to meditate or shut our brains off while trying to fall asleep, some dogs have a hard time settling down, relaxing, and calming down; it can be a difficult skill, but the mat is a tool that helps us teach our dogs how to settle and helps the behaviors of relaxation become part of their repertoires!
Help with Fear & Reactivity
The mat can be used as a tool to help with a dog that is typically fired up, nervous, fearful, or reactive in certain environments, certain scenarios, or with certain triggers or stressors. For example, I've used the mat in each of the following instances with my own dog:
At the vet - in the waiting room and the exam room
When guests are visiting
When training with multiple dogs in the household
With a mixed animal household of dog(s) and cat(s)
In the front yard on a busy street
At the park, the beer garden, the outdoor patio, etc.
Anywhere a dog typically has a hard time relaxing, the mat can be used to help! We can start encouraging relaxed behavior and creating positive associations with the previously difficult environment or around previously concerning triggers/stressors. Being in a relaxed state and being calm is often what makes working with triggers even possible for a lot of dogs, too!
The mat is such a useful tool and we use it on a daily basis in my house; I teach it to all of my classes and a decent chunk of my clients are taught how to use the mat in one way or another.
When I teach this mat behavior to my classes and my clients, we talk about how the behavior (your dog being on a mat) can be taught in two different ways:
Rewarding for interacting with the mat in some way - standing on it, sitting, laying, etc. as described before; or
Teaching a cue to go to the mat (as with most behaviors I teach, I teach a physical cue or hand motion and a verbal cue or word with both meaning, "You'll get good stuff if you go over there.").
You may have noticed that I haven't said much about sending your dog to their mat and that's likely because, most of the time, I'm utilizing the former approach and only occasionally using the latter; that may be different for you and your dog, your circumstances, and how you find the mat to be most useful, though!
Happy mat training!