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Teach Settle on a Mat

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Settle down over there!

Is your dog a little too excited? Too excitable? Is he a maniac when people come to the door? Does he bug you when you're trying to eat dinner? Would you love to have a place where your dog could just chill out, yet still be in the same room with you?

You need SETTLE. Well, more accurately, your dog needs settle.

What is the settle behavior? Settle is when your dog goes to his specified mat, wherever you are (your house, the park, hotel room, family’s house for a party, veterinary visits, etc.) and relaxes. Even falls asleep— I’ve seen it happen! Settle on a mat is pretty easy to teach; you’ll be amazed at how quickly your dog catches on.

What you’ll need to teach settle on a mat:

  • a mat (think bathroom mat, the kind with a plastic backing)
  • clicker
  • treats

How to teach settle on a mat:

  1. Stand still, centered behind the mat.
  2. Have your clicker ready to go (in your hand, thumb on the clicker).
  3. When the dog just happens to put a paw on the mat (totally by chance), CLICK!
  4. Toss the treat off the mat (you need the dog to leave the mat so he can come back onto the mat to get another click).
  5. Wait for the dog to eat the treat and wander back over to where you’re standing, accidentally stepping a paw on the mat again in the process.
  6. Click, toss treat.
  7. Repeat.

Soon, you’ll be clicking and treating rapidly. Your dog might not know (yet!) exactly what is getting him the click and treat, but you’ll see that he’s hanging out near you and with his paw on that mat a lot more often.

When your dog is getting a paw on the mat every single time, hold off on clicking him until he gets two paws on the mat. Ooh, we’re tricky, aren’t we? You’ll be surprised at how quickly your dog moves both paws on to the mat. Be ready; click the moment that second paw touches the mat. Toss the treat and wait again.

Again, pretty quickly, two paws will be the norm. Guess what you’re going to do next? You’re going to wait for the dog to have three paws on the mat before you click. Then, you guessed it, when he’s good at getting three paws on the mat, click only when the dog has all four paws on the mat. Always toss a treat away from the mat after you click, of course.

Now comes the first big leap of faith that I’m going to ask you for. It’s going to involve you doing nothing. That’s really hard for people, I’ve learned. We want to help. We want to tell the dog what to do. I’m begging you—remain silent. Remain still. Do nothing except clicking and treating. When the dog is good at getting four paws on the mat, I want you to wait until the dog voluntarily sits on that mat before clicking and treating. I promise you that the dog will sit without you asking him. Honest, I wouldn’t steer you wrong. Just wait—it will be worth it, I promise.

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Once your dog is coming to the mat and sitting reliably, guess what? You’re going to wait for the dog to volunteer a down. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? It’s not. Again, you have to trust me. Of course, you will click and treat the instant the dog lies down. This video of little Levi, a sweet 10-ish week old Labrador retriever, shows what the down (settle!) will look like. He had never worked on settle prior to this video shoot. See how fast he gets the idea? Your dog will likely be this quick, too.

Troubleshooting settle on a mat:

  • What if my dog doesn’t move? Just be patient. Remember that in the beginning of the video, Levi sort of sat still for a bit. I didn’t look at him, didn’t talk to him, just sat and waited. If your dog gets really stuck (lies down, for instance), you can toss a treat (no click, just toss) to get him up and moving.
  • What if my dog wanders off? Some inexperienced dogs might not understand the process. To help the novice dog, try this. Click and treat 10 times in a row. Click, then toss the treat away a few feet. You’re not clicking for anything in particular, just pairing the sound of the click with the tossed treat. Tossing the treat gets the dog moving; once the dog is up and moving, it’s a sure bet that, inadvertently, he’ll walk across or onto that mat. Then, click and treat.
  • My dog just stares at me—what do I do? Stand (or sit) still and look at the mat. Keep your eyes on the mat and resist the urge to “help” your dog.

There are still some things you need to do to make the settle behavior useful. These steps include adding the cue word to tell the dog when he should settle, introducing the concept of staying on the mat, and introducing distractions. No worries! We will cover all of that in Part 2 of this article, coming in March. Use the next few weeks to work on this piece of settle and you’ll be ready for the next steps next month!

Want more great training tips? Join Laurie Luck, along with other top trainers, at ClickerExpo Stamford, March 31-April 2. Get more details and register here.

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Laurie Luck, KPA CTP, and a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, is the founder of Smart Dog University. She has been involved with many pet dog trainer certification initiatives, all based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge. Laurie also participates in service dog training, and she and her Tango are a pet-therapy team. Through her work with dogs and owners, Laurie has developed many happy canine and human friendships.