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Settle down now …

August 25, 2011

Dogs do not demand we learn more about them, but they applaud our efforts and produce results that never fail to impress. Impress us about their learning skills and their talent for reinforcing us for moving forward.

When we get it right, the results will be evident almost immediately. The change may be minimal depending on the distance of the journey, but when there is no noticeable change you can be pretty sure we are not on the right track. Stop and re-think. I am a fan of re-thinking rather than the continuation of something that shows no evidence or progress. The “right track” is a combination of understanding the behaviour, the instincts driving the behaviour, and strategies to employ the appropriate reinforcer at the right time. The usual format skips the first 2 elements and jumps straight to the human-choice strategy which becomes the standard format for teaching that behaviour. Making those not so round pegs feel even more confused.

dogs lounging around

All settled, been for a run, facing the same way. Quiz (the Collie, is embarrassed to be grouped with Gordons)

I have been studying the dogs’ settling down behaviour, stimulated by nothing more than me being at rest. I am looking for the contingencies and the individual patterns of their behaviours. The traditional teaching protocol for a settled position is a step by step progression from a down to perhaps a hip-roll or even a lie on the side. This would equate to getting a person to sleep by shaping them to lie flat on their back with their eyes shut, and being watched! It may work for someone near exhaustion, but I always begin my sleep pattern on my left side, pillow crunched, Kindle in hand, a peaceful house and no spectators. There may be moments during the night when I lie flat on my back, but if I try to sleep like that it just doesn’t happen. Being settled and subsequently able to sleep is a combination of emotional states such as security, contentment and calmness. Trying to train the settle down if these emotions are not in place will result in the mechanical elements of the behaviour, but as successful in inducing calmness as you lying on your back, eyes wide shut.

If I am sitting in the garden, coffee and Kindle to hand, the dogs settle down within a couple of minutes. The familiar routine triggers their settling patters. Firstly they move around quite slowly, choosing where to lie down. Some prefer  to keep an outward view of their territory, usually with their back to me and all usually facing the same way. If the weather demands coffee and Kindle is housebound, we settle with different priorities. No need for keeping an eye on the external boundaries of their territory, each have their own chosen spot, some like to keep a view of me, some put comfort as a top priority, (Gordons only). Often if they have a bed there is a digging pattern, followed by a few revolutions around the block and then a flop directly to one hip, legs tucked under and a tail wrap for warmth. Maybe an hour later they are akimbo with all appendages facing upwards, but they never begin like that. The pre-settle patterns will change depending on my pattern, the morning coffee time, or the evening TV time, and there are slight variations to their responses.

Dot & Speck, side by side

Puppies do not begin this sort of sleep preparation patterns until they begin to mature. Usually sleep hits them like a truck and they collapse on the meaty bone with a sibling for a pillow. Some variety of experiments later and I have found that if I use the correct protocol for that environment, for that dog, and step them through their particular pattern, they settle quickly. Not only a physically settled position but a restful one as well. This is evident in their relaxed joints head to the floor with ease and some deep sighing. When I am trying to sleep on a long flight, I like to run through my emotional relaxation pattern: pillow crunch (the only reason for roll-on luggage is to take my own pillow), left side, 10 minutes of Kindling and a darkened cabin. Even the rocking action of mild turbulence has a part to play.

Siblings make good pillows

For this behaviour I would not use a clicker, for my dogs this is a cue for high levels of mental and physical activities, not emotionally compatible with calmness. A word will take the place, “cool”. I begin with a circling action, the food is held below the dog’s head height, for the collies just below my knee level, they are at my side facing forward and I lure them around in a small circle whilst turning on the spot myself. As they lower into the down position their body is already curved away from me and they arrive straight onto the open hip position. To recognise the open hip, relaxed legs, look at the difference between a dog lying down but ready for action, and the hip roll that really pushed the legs away from the body. Place your reinforcers on the floor between the front and back legs, this maintains that relaxed posture and curved spine. If food contradicts the relaxation, just take a finger and tickle their flank, or inside of their uppermost back leg. If you have studied their own routines to relaxed settle down, and can incorporate a touch at that moment, the same touch when you ask them to step through their routine will go a long way to triggered the emotional state that you want.

Begin your training by observation, analysis and note taking, or video if you can. Watch your dog’s patterns. Is there a different pattern for different places? Do they face the same way to settle down in the car or dog bed? I like to sit on the left end of the sofa, left leg tucked under. I pursued the right end for a few weeks to “find some balance” but it always felt wrong and uncomfortable. Do they have the same pattern wherever they are or does it change in different environments, and different times of the day, or depending on your activity? None of mine go straight from activity to settled. Even when coming in from exercise there is always some mooching and spot-browsing, a sort of cooling down preparation. As soon as one begins to settle the others follow very quickly, usually I have to be the first to settle.

Give yourselves a head start by asking for the settle when it is most likely to happen, when you have seen the first 5 steps of their 6 step pattern, introduce the “settle down” cue. After several repetitions, give the cue earlier in their pattern, and then at the beginning. Do not expect them to jump from step 1 to step 6, the cue will mean “begin your settling pattern”.

When we are on the right track the dogs will come through for us. The right track is usually the one closest to their natural behaviours.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2011 5:08 pm

    Hi Kay,

    Love your blog! What a great idea. It’s like sitting in the living room and having one of those great chats with you! Food for thought.

  2. August 26, 2011 8:56 pm

    Yeah the blog is here!! Just in time to keep the juices flowing after the course a few weeks back.

  3. Sue C permalink
    August 26, 2011 11:56 pm

    The first posting did not disappoint! I will remember to observe my dogs more often. Great advice for life a well…I learn more when I am quiet and simply observe my own species too. Looking forward to many more posts

  4. Anne Bove permalink
    September 9, 2011 5:09 pm

    When my Kindle and coffee/tea comes out, the dogs definitely know to settle!

    Enjoyed this. Love all the photos.

  5. October 7, 2011 6:20 pm

    Wonderful blog – reminds me to actually observe my dogs rather than think I ‘know’ what they do. They two are not necessarily the same thing! I had always wondered how to effectively teach settle, since I see dogs who know the position but not the emotion, and this explains that phenomenon beautifully.

  6. December 20, 2011 1:09 am

    I agree with Charlotte. The emotion of settling down is so much more important than an exact position! There is a huge difference between a down/stay- until released and an invitation to relax and be comfy and quiet
    Thank you for clarifying this.

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