Sarah Dixon, CDBC
The concept of mat work or place training is nothing new in dog training. However, it remains one of my favorite behaviors to teach because it is very useful for pet owners and extremely versatile in behavior modification work.
This involves teaching a dog to go to a specific item or place and target it with their body. I prefer to work up to a default down; I often begin with a sit and build from there. My preference is to use a flat dog mat or towel, as these are easy to move around the home, transport to different locations, and easy for the dog to get their body onto.
I prefer to teach this behavior through shaping, as doing so eliminates any unnecessary prompts from the onset of training. Shaping this behavior is relatively easy for even a novice handler to accomplish, with skilled coaching. If needed I will sometimes jumpstart the process and have my client take over, but they can do most of the work on their own if they know what to watch for. At first we want the dog to just inspect the mat, then walk on to it, and then sit and later lie down. Often I work on shaping progressively more relaxed body language as well.
By shaping a dog to go to a mat and relax, we can often quickly begin to reduce general anxiety or over-arousal issues. The dog may learn how to self-regulate their behavior through this exercise. The mat can also become a safe place for dogs that lack confidence. These benefits are in addition to the fact that it can simply be useful in many facets of behavior modification to train a dog to go to a specific spot on cue.
The mat as a target
Sometimes simply having the dog fluent in going to the mat and staying there until released is sufficient enough to meet a client’s needs. In these cases I don’t insist on a down position (but will reinforce it if the dog offers it), and so I focus more on sending to the mat and staying for short periods. I will typically use this style of go-to-bed behavior to teach dogs to retreat from conflict instead of engaging in aggressive behavior. This can apply in cases of resource guarding, dogs with issues with guests entering the home, or dogs that are unsure about new babies/toddlers.
In some resource guarding cases, particularly with dogs that guard space, it can be a very helpful skill to teach the dog to move to a target spot on cue without conflict. This can be utilized to signal to a dog to move out of a location they may be guarding, or to move the dog away from an item and allow the item to be safely removed. For more information on working with resource guarding, please see my IAABC webinar.
Jack has a tendency to resource guard found objects. We are working on starting to teach him to drop an item and go to his mat so the item can be removed.
For dogs that are fearful or aggressive toward guests in the home, teaching a dog to go to a mat can be helpful in several ways.
It can be used to keep the dog away from the front door, which is important not only for safety and comfort of the guest, but to reduce the dog’s initial arousal at the stimulus of the guest entering. Some dogs do better when they are able to see the door, while some are more relaxed if they do not see the person enter. The mat can be used to keep the dog in a desired location while guests are entering the home.
It can also be a safe space for a dog that is nervous of guests in the home, which helps the dog feel more comfortable and relaxed. The dog, when ready, can alternate between greeting the guests, with the option always open to return to their mat. We can use the cue to go to the mat to support a dog that may be a bit stuck or in conflict. We can also use the mat to teach the dog to retreat in response to the stimulus of a person approaching their space, as opposed to barking or displaying other aggressive behaviors.
Dogs that are more fearful/stimulated with guests entering can be conditioned to relax on the mat, which helps them settle faster. For more information on working with dogs with issues with guests, please see my article here.
Mat work can be very helpful for dogs who are nervous of guests to be able to settle and become comfortable more quickly. This is my first session with this dog, who went from continual barking and frantic spinning and jumping to being able to relax with me present and walking around.
Nervousness about a new baby or a toddler in the home
Similar to what we do with fear of guests, we can use mat work to help teach a dog both to feel more comfortable and relaxed around babies and toddlers as well as to move away if they feel nervous or concerned, instead of growling or snapping at the child. (Please note, this is for dogs that are nervous about children and have potential to become comfortable, but do not present a significant safety threat.)
To teach the dog to move away from the child if they feel nervous, first we must educate the client on how to observe subtle body language signs that might indicate that their dog is unsure or nervous. Then, once the go-to-mat behavior is fluent, we can teach clients how to support their dog by asking the dog to move away to their mat when clients notice any subtle signs of their dog being unsure. Over time, the behavior of retreating from the baby when the dog is not comfortable typically becomes default, and self-reinforcing, thus clients no longer need to cue the dog to go to the mat.
The mat as a relaxation station
In addition to using the mat as a target to send the dog to a specific spot, we can also teach and condition dogs to be relaxed on their mats. This has multiple useful applications in behavior modification including departure training for separation distress, desensitization and counter-conditioning, general anxiety, and arousal issues.
In order to teach a dog to relax or settle on a mat, I have the handler sit close to the dog and avoid direct eye contact with them. The handler will use a calm, soothing voice for their marker and a slow, controlled treat delivery.
Start with the dog on the mat in a sit, wait for the dog to offer a down, then mark and reward. If the dog doesn’t offer the down after a long period, try prompting the dog a few times, then see if they will offer on their own.
Once the dog reliably offers a down, begin to build some duration in the down by rewarding multiple times (in quick succession if needed) and then eventually spacing the timing of the rewards out.
The next step is to begin to mark and reward progressively relaxed body language: things like rolling onto the hip, the tail slowing or stopping wagging, or the head lowering to or resting on the mat or floor. It helps at this stage to place the reward between the dog’s front feet, as this will prompt head dips.
Carnie was working on relax on a mat for separation anxiety. This is from the beginning stages of teaching him how to settle on the mat. We had already gotten him to understand to go on to the mat and hold a down, and were focusing on rewarding when he stopped wagging his tail and are starting to capture some head dips.
Eventually you will get predictable head dips and can begin to select only for longer chin rests. From there on, dogs typically begin to actually settle and relax on the mat. Once the body gets there, the brain usually follows! Using low-value treats, and calm body language and movements, will help to get the dog to actually settle versus just assuming the head down position but being ready to spring into action.
Carnie later in training. He is very nicely conditioned to settle on his mat and we are working on starting to add his owner moving away from him.
One of my most common uses of conditioning relaxation on a mat is for separation distress training. (See my IAABC webinar on dealing with separation-related issues for more details.) The mat becomes a way to get the dog relaxed, which can then be paired with desensitization to owners exiting the home and departure training. This mat training helps the dog self-regulate their anxiety and remain relaxed while watching the owner leave. It also serves as a safety signal to tell the dog that the owner will be returning in a safe amount of time that they can tolerate.
I suggest using the same mat or towel for this exercise, because the dog will recognize the special mat and have a positive conditioned emotional response to seeing it come out and interacting with it. The mat should come out only for training exercises and be put away afterwards. This way, the dog always gets reinforced for going on the mat and relaxing. There is no opportunity for the dog to choose to lie on the mat on their own, which keeps the reinforcement history with the mat very high and also allows the mat to function as a safety signal in departure training.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning
We can also use mat work as an aid in general desensitization and counter-conditioning work. Because the dog has a high reinforcement history for going to the mat and relaxing, we can use that as a way to help them relax around things that concern them.
For example, you can bring the mat to the vet’s office to help your dog relax in the waiting room and exam room. You can also use mat work to help reactive dogs learn how to relax around other dogs.
Another way I like to use mat work for DS/CC is for dogs that are a bit unsure of children or toddlers in the home. In addition to serving as a way to teach the dog to retreat from uncomfortable interactions as discussed previously in the article, you can also use a positively conditioned mat to help the dog learn to relax at a comfortable distance around children, and to begin to make positive associations and feel safe being in their presence.
You can also use relax on a mat to help animals in the household learn to behave calmly around each other.
Increasing clear communication between dog and owner
I appreciate the benefit that mat work has in improving the overall communication between the dog and their owner. This is something that is often not discussed a lot in behavior modification, but in my experience the ability for the owner to communicate clearly and effectively with their dog — and the dog’s willingness to take direction from their owner — are very important aspects of the dog-human relationship. Improving these areas can make a drastic difference in the success of a behavior modification program.
Mat work helps owners improve their communication because they develop clean training mechanics and learn how their body language can affect their dog. They also get to experience how effective well-timed rewards delivered at a high rate of reinforcement can be to build behavior at the initial stages of training.
In the later stages of training, owners can learn how their body language and movements can be used to communicate to their dog: We can teach owners that if they simply move into the dog’s space, the dog can move away (using the “go to mat” as a cue to teach the dog how to respond and avoid confusion or frustration).
Owners can also observe that they can get their dog to come to them with a change in body language (moving backward and being light and playful and encouraging). They also can learn how being clear in their body language and verbal cues (i.e., not repeating cues) can make a huge difference in their dog’s ability to learn and understand what is being asked of them.
This training overall improves the owner’s ability to be clear and consistent in their verbal and body language communication with their dog. This often reduces the dog’s baseline stress and can aid in reducing general anxiety.
The dog, in turn, learns how to take direction from the owner based on their body language — when to move away and when to come to them. As well, they learn that their owner is a source of positive things, and may be worth listening to after all!
I personally find mat work, stay, and building relaxation on the mat to be incredibly valuable in behavior modification. It is something that I use with almost every case that I work on in some form or another. If you’re not currently utilizing mat work in your behavior programs I encourage you to experiment with it. I hope you’ll find, as I have, that it is very versatile and definitely worthwhile to have in your tool box.
Not only is mat work very useful in behavior modification, but it is also a very useful behavior for dogs to learn for general life skills and manners. It’s a flexible behavior for most households, as it can be used as an incompatible behavior for begging at the table, hyperactive behavior, attention-seeking, barking, and many more.
If you are using mat work as part of your practice, I’d love to hear about it! Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, feedback, or if you’ve got a creative way you’ve used this skill.
Sarah Dixon is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and IAABC Board of Directors member. She works for Instinct Dog Behavior & Training LLC in New York City where she specializes in behavior problems such as fear, aggression, anxiety, and reactivity.