The Chill Out Game
Build self-control and calmness in your dog!
By Mindy Cox, BS, CPDT-KSA
Does your overly excited dog not know how to settle down quickly after greeting, playing (with you or other dogs), or seeing something exciting outside such as a squirrel? That’s pretty normal! Going from an aroused and excited state to settling and being more relaxed is a skill that can and should be taught, early. The Chill Out Game builds patience and self-control in your dog.
What are the advantages of chilling out?
Many dogs today are easily over-excited by the situations encountered in daily life. By teaching a game such as the Chill Out Game we can substitute overexcitement and arousal for calm behavior. Think of it as an off-switch. An off switch can be useful for play, chasing squirrels, or anytime that your dog is over-excited or aroused.
In this game, your dog goes from enthusiastic to calm (or a little calmer to start!). Practice in different settings but always begin in an environment.
Play can be an important reinforcer (reward) for dogs who need to learn self-control. The “Chill Out” game is designed to use the opportunity to play as the reward for self-control. The particular importance of this game is that it will teach the dog that he can go from really high arousal or excitement to instant calm—this game will help you install an “on/off” switch. The goal is to teach the dog that he can substitute calm behavior for his agitated state. Examples would be performing a competing behavior like fetching a specific toy (that the dog finds comforting) or going to a particular place and lying down to then earning a treat of some sort. The reward you use will of course depend on the specific dog.
The game involves deliberately getting your dog fired up to play and then having him “chill out” on cue. This can help to teach the dog to calm himself in high-excitement situations, such as when he is around children, or when company comes to your home.
Teaching the Game
You must begin in a quiet, calm location with the fewest distractions. Make this training fun with lots of treats. You will then train the “Chill Out Game” to help your dog learn to turn his aroused state on and off.
- First, you need to teach either a sit or down that is very reliable. If not, see if you can wait for the sit, or just more relaxed behavior, by using all of the relaxation cues described in the “off” section below. (If your dog does not have a reliable sit or a down, please reach out to a qualified, certified, positive reinforcement trainer for training help.)
- Now get the dog excited by playing tug or chasing a toy on a string. In the middle of the game, stop all play, become like a tree and quietly ask for a sit or down. The dog’s reward for sitting is to immediately re-engage them in the game. The dog will learn quickly that their calm sit or down is what gets the game going again. You can play around with varying the length of time the dog has to sit before playing again, vary the cue (sit, down, or simply settle), and vary the length of the playing. (If your dog does not yet have a sit when cued (asked), be sure that the arousal part of the game is very short (the “on” portion), and then patiently wait until you see signs of relaxation (“off”) before starting the cycle again. See below for tips on the off switch.)
- Body language can be used as an arousal cue: Use a posture that is playful and appealing to your dog. Freeze, crouch a bit, hunch your shoulders slightly, and quickly dart first toward and then away from your dog. Lightly tap your dog’s shoulder if he’s comfortable with physical play.
- For the off switch, you can use a verbal cue such as “easy”, “settle” or “done”. Body language is also important: stand up straight, turn your shoulders slightly away, break off eye contact, stop talking or talk very quietly and softly to disengage. Movements are slow, deliberate, and gentle. You can ask the dog to go and stay on a mat or just lie down while you gently stroke or massage his ears if he finds this relaxing.
- Once you have taught the game, you need to add short bursts of activity interspersed with quiet times, which is what normal dogs typically do given the chance. In the beginning, the entire cycle of arousal and settling should last only one minute. If you play with intensity for a very long period of time, your dog is more likely to become too excited and then it’s very hard to get him to settle. Once he is good at settling, play or practice recalls or go running for five to ten minutes and then have quiet time for approximately 15-20 minutes. Your goal is to start to arouse your dog with activity and then bring him down before he loses control.
You must hold yourself accountable for really watching the dog and learning when to step in to ask for the cooling-off behavior to lower your dog’s arousal.
Signs of the “on” switch
When your dog is “on” :
- He is engaged with you but not over-excited.
- Your dog should appear “happy” yet able to focus his attention on you.
When to flip the switch
The moment you see your dog unable to focus on you because his arousal is escalating, stop the game. This might occur because the dog is starting to go into his “own little world.” If you see any of these signs, you should use your “off” switch to bring the dog back to you.
- The dog no longer playing with you but rather beginning to initiate a different or more intense game.
- Faster and/or harder movements,
- Using his mouth, teeth, or paws to connect with your body.
Signs of the “off” switch
During the “off” behavior you need to make sure that you are relaxed too or it’s not going to help the dog. You want to see signs that the dog’s arousal level has shifted:
- A softening of the overall muscular body tension and the return of more “normal” eye movement.
- The dog stops staring at you in anticipation of more action and begins to appear more aware of what’s happening around him.
- Signs of overall relaxation.
- The dog will often “soften” as he lets go of the muscle tension,
- This may even be accompanied by a good sigh of relief.
If you haven’t gone overboard with the “on” part, then the “off” should follow quite quickly. Be patient!
At this point in the “off-switch” moment, provide the dog with a nice, needed reinforcement. It puts their “patience” into perspective. It may take a few minutes to achieve but coming down to a less aroused emotional state is not easy. If you’ve overdone it (and that’s most likely as you fine-tune your ability to read your dog) just be patient, ask for the “off” behavior, and then be still yourself. You’ll want to stand quietly relaxed (joints flexed, jaw soft, slow blink rate, slow deep breathing) and wait till the dog relaxes, however long it might take. Be sure and watch that you also are giving off clear relaxed body signals. Be soft and supple while standing relaxed. Ahhh, there you have it! Remember we all need some amount of impulse control. Some of us must learn how to achieve self-control while with others it happens naturally.
In this video, this young pup is getting fired up with play. Be sure not to let it go on too long before helping the pup settle.
It’s difficult for many dogs to learn to settle down, especially young dogs like the one in this video. Our expectations should be appropriate to the dog’s age, temperament, environment, and level of training. A little bit of silliness, such as the rolling over exhibited here, is fine. Reinforce all calm-ish moments quickly with high-value food rewards and repeat them often. Settling is a behavior that is built with patience and repetition.
Training Tip: With each subsequent training session, a response of gradually longer duration and of gradually increasing relaxation should be reinforced. Focus on facial expressions, body postures, and breathing in order to determine your dog’s level of relaxation, before giving rewards and proceeding to gradually more successful outcomes.
Training Tip: Start playing this game as soon as you get your puppy. He is not too young to start learning great skills, but be patient and build it slowly since puppies have a shorter attention span.
Troubleshooting: If you are having trouble getting your dog to settle, decrease the arousal time before asking your dog to settle. Do shorter bursts of arousal and longer periods of settling down. Also, consider your body posture and voice. If you are not relaxed your dog won’t be either. Be patient!