Allowing opportunity to decompress
I was going to name this as the 4th method of reinforcement, think of this topic as you will as everybody will have their own version of what 'down time' means for them.
When a dog lives in a chaotic environment of constant motion, heightened energy levels and interrupted rest due to a busy household then this creates patterns of behaviour. It does the same for the humans of the house too.
This constant whirl is exhausting both physically and mentally but what this state of mind also creates is a strong pathway of this being 'the norm'.
When the dog is then told to 'relax' via crating or being sent to a "place' position it will find it to be mission impossible to unwind and find stasis. The dog will be restless, vocal, possibly tantrum or panic at confinement leading to anxiety and destructive behaviour. You have created a chaos addiction.
An analogy that I have heard from another trainer is think of the dogs mind as two spinning wheels.
One is the chaos, fear, anger, white noise wheel and the other is the calm, play, brave, clear headed one.
The wheel that is spun the most is the one that the dog will naturally slide into as behaviour, it is well oiled.
The other wheel will be stuck and rusty, slow to turn and uncomfortable. For the dog to access calm and focus then that behaviour needs to be practiced and become 'the norm' rather than the chaos.
By providing this vital life skill of being able to relax and decompress you will gift your dog with a long and healthy life along with your dog being a far more comfortable companion for it's humans and fellow canines.
There are many pathways that can be used to achieve this calm mind state and the concept has many levels.
Initially you need to look at the environment that the dog spends the most time in and change this so that a quiet oasis can be provided.
Structured sleeping, eating and play areas need to be designated and managed.
Patterns of behaviour such as Place (mat, bed, car, couch, crate, pen etc) are created and reinforced until the dog's emotional response to these are calm and relaxed. This then becomes self reinforcing as the dog will learn to access them to relieve stress/anxiety.
The dog's diet needs to be clean and balanced so that they have good levels of protein and less carbs, this allows for a steady level of energy instead of peaks and crashes. A dog on a sugar rush will find it very difficult to focus and learn never mind settle to a task and maintain a behaviour.
Communications need to be clear, concise and relevant so create a 'dictionary' of cues and make sure that one sound only means one action instead of multiple. The dog's name is a classic example of conflicting meanings for the same sound, "come to me", "look at me", "fido sit, fido drop, fido fido fido...", "FIDO!!!!"....you get the point.
Rules of the house needs to be consistent across all humans so that you do not put the dog into conflict as this creates an unsettled dog that cannot relax as well as losing faith in the system.
Drive outlet, structured exercise that allows the dog to outlet energy but to also come back to neutral as part of the play process. Mindless outlet of energy is just a waste of a dog, utilise the play time to strengthen the relationship along with impulse control concepts.
Inter canine relations may be a part of this in a multiple dog household so look at separation and management of each dog individually instead of all dogs always being together. A young dog put in with elderly with create chaos and friction for everybody. A pup needs to be developed individually instead of being left for the old dog to raise.
If the canine relations have gone off track and there has been aggression then this needs to be addressed and managed very carefully or else nobody in the house will be able to relax safely.
See below for a couple of general meanings for 'decompress".....
What does it mean to decompress yourself?
Emotions, time and space are intrinsically connected, so if we want to decompress, the key is that we need to create the perception of more mental space which makes us feel like we have more time. The perception of more time means we can mentally and emotionally relax and reset.
What does it mean to decompress a dog?
The premise behind decompression is allowing the dog to get back to a neutral and relaxed state of mind, opposite of what it just came from. Your dog needs leadership and calm predictability. These two things are crucial to the dog becoming appropriately integrated into your home.
So how do we manage to teach or allow a dog to decompress?
Crate training can be a brilliant way of providing a safe space away from the general noise and stresses of the household. It also creates pathways in the dogs mind that allows it to relax totally, be separated and thus independent so this can avoid separation anxiety and other related behaviours.
Place training allows the dog to follow a direction and maintain the behaviour despite competing motivators, fantastic for impulse control and can be a baseline for counter conditioning if required. Place training can also be a good management tool for multiple dogs, adding other pets to the house, bringing in extra humans to the fold or for managing arousal levels around visitors. Place training can also be used at cafe type situations where a steady head is required as well as maintaining a position.
Nose games can be a great way of bringing the dogs energy levels down and to relax them. The simple process of seeking and finding is meditation to a dog, it release endorphins and serotonins etc and this gives a sense of well being and calm. There are so many ways nose games can be incorporated into day to day life.
Touch/massage can be used in similar ways to how us humans do. Releasing muscular tension, providing relief from pain, increasing trust and bond/relationship. The knock on affect of this is that your dog will be more comfortable with grooming, vetting, fitting of equipment, lifting etc. Therapists such as Bowens and Myotherapy or chiropractic are a valuable resource to tap into for your dogs overall health and wellbeing. A dog may be carrying pain without you knowing and this will keep the dog in a stressed state. Pain also makes a dog reactive and intolerant, no different to us. Always look at the baseline health of your dog before assuming that the dog is just 'acting out' or being 'naughty'.
The Release cue can be conditioned to the point of 'primary reinforcer' where the dog's emotional response is layered into the exercise and not just the physical fact of breaking from position on cue. If the release is paired with the dog giving calm focus, steady position prior to release and then given a secondary reward/reinforcer from there then the dog's emotional response becomes a pattern that can be tapped into. For example, 'mat'...'drop'....* dog relaxes and holds calm focus with handler..."finish"..*dog breaks from position and is given pat/food/toy etc as secondary reinforcer. The exercise then predicts to the dog a sense of calm/being in control of the outcome without going into an agitated state of offering multiple random behaviours in the hope of receiving the reward quicker. In this case then the dog will go to the place position and relax to the point of sleep if left long enough instead of being vigilant and twitchy.
The 'leave' cue can be used as a pathway to reduce arousal levels and teach the dog that access to resources are controlled by you and not taken on opportunity. For example a dog that is given free access to greeting strangers on the walk. The dog becomes excited and pulls you along then greets by jumping up and being mouthy and rowdy. Greeting done, new victim spotted and the routine begins again. This could be another dog, wildlife, cycles etc that the dog wants to aquire. Multi layers here: the handler is reinforcing that pulling you along gets the dog to the prize. The dog learns that all greetings are done in a chaotic state with no manners or permission given by the victim.
You the handler then become totally irrelevant to your dog and your input is ignored as they are seeking fun from randoms instead of from you. There goes the relationship!
On the flip side the dog is blocked/stopped from accessing the resource within a couple of seconds of the Leave cue. Space is created, reset retry until the dog understands that access will be denied consistently. Once the dog stops pulling to access and looks instead to the handler for direction then the CR (yes/click etc) is used and reward delivered. It is critical that NO reward is ever delivered straight after the stopping/blocking action as this will lead to conflict and a very messy headspace for the dog. Once a Leave cue is set then it needs to be generalised across as many scenarios as possible for the dog. This then gives you a powerful tool to use to reduce arousal levels as well as frustration for the dog.
Giving your dog access to suitable chewing/licking type behaviours can be a great way for the dog to wind down.
I prefer fresh bones and edible objects rather than the plastic rawhides, greenies, chews etc made in China.
Lickimats, food kongs, food puzzles etc are also a way to give your dog some outlet and alone time thus allowing them to decompress. Some dogs love to dig, give them an area where they can. Some love to swim or paddle, provide this too if you can. Dogs love a project that involves just doing dog things. Try not to be too precious, provide enrichment in their environment so that they can have suitable and safe outlets.
So all up a dogs version of chilling out is not that much different to ours and is just as important to a happy household. Provide the dog with the opportunity, teach it the skills if they are struggling and then get into the concept yourself. A relaxed dog requires a relaxed human for all of this to work. Always work both ends of the lead, you are equally as important.