Handler & Dog Settling Together – “Let’s Relax”

This is an important exercise for relationship building in addition to getting handler and dog to settle/relax more. In our industry it is no secret that we shape dogs to relax in a down for impulse control and frustration tolerance. In our experience many dogs that have high energy or suffer with anxiety have a hard time to settle and relax. Therefore we use protocols such as shaping calmness to help a dog relax through his own choice and can be by a handlers cue “Let’s Relax”. 

* Shaping is the reinforcement of successive approximations of a desired behavior.
** Free shaping waits for the learner to initiate a behavior him or herself.
*** Differential reinforcement of successive approximations, also known as shaping,
**** Impulse control  characterized by impulsivity – failure to resist a temptation, urge or impulse that may harm oneself or others.


  • Help a dog learn to control the anxiety, high energy, anxiety for impulse control. Therefore learning to calm oneself.
  • Helping the handler to relax themselves as it can be frustrating for the human also. End goal handler signals dog to relax on cue.


  • Handler learns the ability go from relaxation to working with a cue.
  • Dog learns impulse control  for self calming through volunteering behaviors, calmness and attention to the handler.
  • Less stress for humans and dogs. Dogs learn impulse control in different context of our every day changing environmental stimuli.

What is Needed To Start:

  • Lots of HIGH value small easy to eat food/treats. The faster the dog can eat them the better (soft).
  • Handler needs to sit take some deep breathes and try to relax as best as possible. Pay attention to your own body language and poster.
  • We need our dog on leash with enough room to turn move around in a small area near us. Try to avoid any confrontations and if needed step on leash giving the dog enough room to stand , sit and move around in the same small area on a loose leash. 

Lets Begin Shaping: Step ONE:

  • I like to have a final goal that ends with a dog in a down that is relaxed with one hip to the side. We often say when a dog flips his hip to one side while in a down is a true relaxed dog. (dog picks which side).
  • If the dog knows a down and we have done some shaping already we can start with asking or waiting for a down. Then reward with 3 to 5 small pieces of food. Always reinforce for position which is between the paws (so dogs learn not to pop out of position). Release with your word/cue (free,ok).
  • If dog never has done shaping or doesn’t know a down we can lure the dog into a down to get him started. When he gets into position feed for position then release. If he stays in a down reward and release.
  • In both these examples if a dog stays down for duration reinforce with 5 more treats and praising softly then release. If dog gets up don’t say anything. 

 In this exercise what we are doing is getting the dog to start to understand if he lays down he gets reinforced  If he lays down he gets more reinforcer’s. We are starting to teach the dog that if he offers to lay down good things happen! This is the begging of shaping behaviors and calmness where a dog figures out his behavior has outcomes. He can control the environment!

OK lets move on! Please repeat this step few more times until we feel the dog gets that his behavior is dictating the environmental outcome. Either offering or complying. 

Step TWO:

  • Depending on the dog in front of us we can lure, ask or wait for the dog to go into a down. The final goal is a dog that offers to go down and relax. These steps will depend on the dog we are working with and we always keep it fun. When the dog gets into a down position give him 5 to 10 small pieces of food while lightly praising.
  • Here is where we start working on duration therefore wait few seconds see if dog stays down if he does praise lightly and give another 5 small pieces of food. We will alternate our rewards for duration at this point. If the dog gets up say nothing.
  • If the dog gets up say nothing and wait until he goes into a down. When he does another 5 to 10 small pieces and work on duration. If at this step the dog does not offer a sit within 5 to 20 seconds we can help by asking or luring. When he gets into a down praise lightly and 5 to 10 pieces of food.
  • When the dog is getting duration we can start to add a cue for a release word (free,ok). Once the dog is getting the duration we release and walk around.
  • Then we come back and sit and wait for the dog to offer a down and work on our duration. This is where we start shaping calmness. We wait for signals (body language of the dog relaxing, less painting, head down or hip to the side. These are some good examples of dog relaxing).  

On this step we are looking for a dog that offers the behavior of a down and begins to relax. We as handlers are also relaxing and reinforcing for duration paying high and frequent at the beginning. We then work on duration and paying (reinforcing) for more relaxation. Always keep the dog in the game as we trainers say. Therefore if the dog is not getting it we can help him out so they don’t get frustrated. (asking, luring)

After walking around or another entire session we can begin using a cue. When the dog gets that he is controlling the outcome and is offering a down/relax we can start cuing “Let’s Relax” . Please always remember when instilling new behvaiors we keep sessions short. Therefore we don’t have to do all these steps in one session. Training new behaviors should be 3 to 15 minutes at a time and one to 3 times a day. (good rule)

  • Handler walks over to sit and begins to relax and cues the dog “Let’s Relax” 
  • Dog should offer a down and start to relax. Wait a few seconds lightly praise and feed for position(between paws) 
  • Keep working on duration making reinforcement less over time and relaxation.
  • A handler should always split their attention between the environment and the dog, reinforce or softly praise as needed. (Many refer this to, “Don’t drop the dog”)
  • Now soft praises some eye contact but do not get dog over excited with talk. Release dog when we feel we are at our duration time for that session (setting a criteria). Play a fun game!

Step FOUR: Proofing – Practice

We all know dogs do not generalize good so we proof every behavior we teach. To keep this simple it means a sit in the kitchen means something totally different to the dog in the living room. Then we add in distance and distractions all means something different to the dog. 

  • Once your dog can split their attention between environment and handler practice “Relax Time” everywhere starting with low distractions. (always setting you and your dog up for success)
  • Do you training at different times and different amount of times of relaxing. (dogs pick up sequence and routines quickly)
  • Change your position when your dog is proofing this “let’s Relax” cue for better proofing. (standing, sitting differently)
  • Go in and out of relax mode and play mode so dogf can learn to pay attention to what the handler is doing.
  • Don’t drop the dog (keeping dog to check in with handler often).  Using soft praise or reinforcement is a good example.

Things to look for when the dog starts getting that its time to relax:

  • Start to lie down and focus on the environment and occasionally checking in with handler.
  • Lies down and rolls on to one hip (really relaxed).
  • Look for other body language such as leans on one hip: puts head down, slower breathing, soft facial expressions
  • not looking for the reinforcer’s often (treats)

If we notice our dogs are not getting this we need to always work at each individuals dogs pace. Keep practicing this in a quiet place such as your home. When we master this we can take it to another room or outside like the backyard. We have to always remember to work slow and add what we call th 3Ds slowly to help the dog generalize. (Duration, Distractions, Distance)

Many things will take time such as dog relaxing or ot paying attention to handler and reinforcer’s (treats). It will be hard for most dogs to do this with distractions in new environments. If we always follow the rules like always setting the dog up for success, we will see behavior change. Go slow and work at each individuals dogs pace never rush! 

Vinny Olito CPDT-KA – CCDT 

Any questions always feel free to contact us
 dog cat


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