Learning to reduce your dog’s arousal levels will make training much easier. An over-aroused dog cannot think clearly, which makes learning difficult.
Many behavior problems are caused by a dog that is overaroused. Lowering arousal levels can improve reactivity, jumping on people, and barking/whining in frustration. Let’s discuss some games you can teach your dog to help reduce arousal!
When a dog sniffs for food, licks, and chews, their brain releases chemicals that help lower arousal. For this reason, some of the most effective lowering-arousal tricks include using food. Searching for food is calming and enriching for the dog.
Snuffle mats are a great way for a dog to search for food. The dog is required to actively work to find food by rummaging around in a mat with fleece on it. When the mat is stuffed, the food works it’s way down so the dog has to work to get it out.
Here’s an example of a dog using a snuffle mat.
Scatter is a favorite of mine because you only need a handful of food. Scatter involves taking 4-6 pieces of food and calmly placing them on the ground. The dog will sniff around to find all of the food. Scatter does a great job reducing arousal as the dog looks for food. Start by saying “scatter” then placing food on the ground, allowing the dog to find it all.
I love stations and use them all of the time. A station is a place (often a raised dog cot or bed) where the dog can be sent to hang out until released. From the beginning of the training, the dog is encouraged to relax on the station. For this reason, they tend to be a calming behavior for dogs.
If you’re not sure how to teach a station behavior, check out this blog post: Station Training: Teaching Your Dog to Go to Their Place.
Here’s a video of my two goldens relaxing on a station while I work on some stuff.
Chin rests are another great tool for lowering arousal. They encourage the dog to be still and thoughtful. To teach a chin rest, you can start with a nose touch. Start to change the angle of your hand to work toward the dog’s chin targeting your hand, then add duration. Keep praise and rewards calm during this process.
Here I’m working on going from a nose touch to a chin rest:
And in this video, I’m adding some duration.
After I have a good station behavior, I like to teach a relaxed down. This is essentially a down stay in which I ignore my dog and encourage the dog to relax. Because I want the dog to relax and not be working for food, once my dog understands the stay, I stop rewarded during the down. I don’t want my dog to expect food while they are in the stay. A dog who expects food will be “working” to get the food by staring at me, offering behaviors like hip switching or sighs.
Here’s an example of Excel doing a relaxed down at a dog show, which I do often so he can look around and acclimate to the environment.
Want more info? Check out this blog post: How to Create a Relaxed Down Stay: Reduce Reinforcement!
All of these games are great ones for helping your dog to reduce arousal. Remember to be calm when teaching these as you want your dog to have that same frame of mind. You’ll want to use lower-value treats and soft soothing praise. I hope you enjoy these tricks to reduce your dog’s arousal!