Updated: May 7, 2021
The mat game is a great way to help with begging at the table, greeting guests more politely, helping dogs feel better around scary stuff, and much more!
For the Mat Game, your dog will learn to go to her mat on your cue, lie down, and remain there calmly for several minutes or longer.
You'll need: A mat, crate or bed, and medium-value treats
The mat should be big enough for your dog to fit her whole body on. Non-skid backings are helpful to prevent sliding! You might choose a small rug, a yoga mat, or even a doggie cooling mat.
Teaching your dog to get on the mat
Put your mat on the floor. If you're going to be sitting, place it right near you, so that your dog's head will be close to you, but they're off to side and not directly facing you. (See the photo below.)
Stand close the mat, put several treats in your hand, and then make a fist with just your pointer finger pointing out. (This will become part of your hand signal.)
Use this hand to lure your dog onto the mat! (Don't forget to help her get all the way on it by lining her up the long way.)
As soon as she steps on the mat with all four feet, mark with “yes” and place a treat at the middle end of the mat every 2 or 3 seconds for up to 10 seconds.
Release your dog with “okay!” as she finishes eating the last treat and start over. Encourage her to come off of the mat before you do your next repetition.
Repeat at least 3 times, or until your dog successfully stays on the mat for 10 seconds without walking off.
Now, we want to add a verbal cue so that your dog will go to the mat when you ask her to. Say “Go to your mat” before you start luring her over. When she goes to the mat, reward her as before.
Once she gets the idea, use your hand signal without food in your hand. You'll make a pointer finger and use a sweeping gesture towards the mat. Practice until your dog will go to her mat while you cue her next to the mat at least 3 times in a row. Then, go on to teach the lie down. (This might be another session altogether! Don't forget to keep your sessions short and sweet!)
Notice how Emmy's mat is off to the side of me, rather than directly in front of me.
Teaching the Lie Down
Now, when your dog gets to the mat, lure her into a down before you reward her. Many dogs will have already started to do this on their own. Once she is lying down, try to place the treats between her front feet. Continue to treat every few seconds for 10 to 15 seconds.
Repeat this until she goes to her mat and lies down without needing the lure when you cue her to go to her mat. Now, your dog is ready to learn to lie down for gradually longer periods of time!
If you haven't already, start sitting down while you do this. "Act casually" around your dog and break eye contact, don't directly face her, etc. This will help her be able to stay on the mat even when you're doing other things.
To increase the time your dog stays lying down, begin waiting longer between treats. You may move to 5 seconds, then 10, and so on. Only increase when she is very successful at the level you are at! If she gets off the mat twice in a row, make it easier by shortening the time.
Once your dog reaches about 10 seconds between treats, start to vary when she gets a treat so that she can’t predict when one is coming! This keeps her motivated and engaged. You can bump up the maximum time between treats like this! For example, when working on a maximum of 30 seconds, you might treat at 5, 15, 4, 30, 12, and 30 seconds.
If your dog gets up from the mat, encourage her to lie down again. (But don’t stress her out.) When she does, praise but do not give her a treat right away! Count up to the same number of seconds you were requiring before she got up. Otherwise, she will learn that it is faster to get up and lie back down than to stay in position. (If she is getting up too early more than 2 times in a row, make it easier again. When you’re learning, it’s frustrating to get things wrong a bunch of times in a row!)
Try and work up to 1 minute between treats for 3 minutes.
Once she hits this mark, she’s ready to continue on to the next steps for her behavior plan!