Mat Game for Behavior Modification
Updated: Feb 3
A mat is a fantastic tool for our fearful and reactive dogs!
It gives your dog a way to say “Yes, I’m comfortable!” or to say “I need more space.” Your dog signals this by staying on or getting off the mat.
Your mat can be a way for you to "station" your dog near a trigger and work without them feeling like they need to move.
First, you’ll train your dog to enjoy lying down on his mat. Then, you’ll begin your other behavior modification exercises on the mat.
To do this, you'll need a non-skid, portable mat that your dog is comfortable on. Many people and dogs use yoga mats! They're easy to clean(Just trim the mat so it's long enough for your dog's whole body when he's lying down, plus a few extra inches.)
Put your mat down on the ground.
Lure your dog onto the mat using treats in your hand.
Once your dog has all four feet on the mat, place treats, one at a time, on the mat between his front feet. (Some dogs may be fearful of the mat, you can start by rewarding just coming near the mat, then only one foot on the mat, then two, etc.)
Repeat for several treats, then say "Okay!" and encourage him to walk off the mat.
Move back to the mat and repeat!
Your dog should start to get on the mat as you approach it or put it down. This is great! The cue for him to get on the mat is it being placed down or you moving toward it. (You don't have to say anything. If you need to, you can ask, "Do you want to go on your mat?". This is your dog's choice, it's not a command. This becomes important later!)
Begin stretching out the time between treats. For example, you may have needed to treat every 1-2 seconds. Now, try for 3-5 seconds, then 7-10 seconds.
Treat quickly enough that he can stay on the mat.
If your dog moves off, wait until he gets back on to reward again.
If he makes two mistakes in a row, make the next repetition easier. Build on success :)
Release with “okay” and encourage your dog to get off the mat frequently at first.
Once your dog is eagerly getting on the mat and standing for at least 10 seconds, you can add in the "down".
Now, when your dog gets to the mat, lure him into a down before you reward him. Many dogs will have already started to do this on their own. Once he is lying down, try to place the treats between his front feet. Continue to treat every few seconds for 10 to 15 seconds.
Repeat this until he goes to his mat and lies down without needing the lure. Now, your dog is ready to learn to lie down for gradually longer periods of time!
Once your dog can lie on the mat for 10 seconds between treats, you’ll change how you reward! We want to keep him motivated, and it’s not very motivating if things just get harder and harder. Throw in some easy ones! Sometimes reward at 5 seconds, then 15, then 8, then 14, and so on. Keeping it unpredictable once he has the concept will keep him engaged and motivated.
Gradually increase the maximum time your dog can go while keeping his rewards unpredictable.
The end goal (before adding other training) is that your dog can stay on the mat for a minimum of 5 minutes with up to 30 seconds between treats.
Once he hits this mark, he’s ready to continue on to the next steps for his behavior plan!
Using Mat Game with Behavior Modification
Place your dog's mat where he is likely to be under threshold. (If your dog is reactive to visitors, make sure you and he have room to move further away. If your dog is reactive to people or dogs outside, consider setting up your mat at a distance, in the grass, facing a path that runs parallel to you. This can help as dogs/people will not be moving directly toward you.)
Your dog's mat is his "safety zone". Triggers are not allowed to approach or touch him when he's on his mat. (For example, visitors are not allowed to come pet your dog while he's on his mat or other dogs are not allowed to approach or sniff him if he's on his mat.)
While on the mat, you can play 123 or Popcorn and a Movie with your dog (whichever they are using) as triggers occur.
Your dog's ability to rest on their mat is one way to tell if they are under threshold. This is part of what makes it so valuable! If your dog doesn't engage with his mat, or has trouble staying on it, this lets you know he needs more distance from his trigger.
If you notice this, help him out by moving him further away or using a distraction method until the trigger is gone.
It's hard, but resist the urge to command your dog to go to the mat. This can add stress instead of relieving it.
Let your trainer know if you need some tips or help troubleshooting this!
Here's what Mat Game looks like being used to help a dog when a guest is over! In this video, it's being used for a dog who is easily overstimulated by guests. (Whether your dog is excited, scared, or a mix, the behavior you want them to do will look the same.)