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  • Writer's pictureLiz MacHaffie

Relax, Max!

Many dogs benefit from learning to relax on cue. These are the steps to teaching your dog to relax on a special mat. There are two phases: 1. Teach your dog to lie down and stay on the mat. 2. Teach your dog to relax on the mat.

Once your dog has learned to relax, you can use the mat in situations which would normally cause him fear or anxiety.

You Will Need:

  • Mat

  • Portable

  • Non-skid backing

  • Large enough to fit your dog’s whole body when he is lying down

  • Low pile or no pile so that the treats are easily seen and eaten

  • Treats

  • Small (~¼ inch) and quickly swallowed.

  • Not too exciting for your dog.

Part 1: Teach your dog to down-stay on the mat

  • Put your relaxation mat on the floor in plain sight, just to the side of a chair. Sit in the chair and show your dog the treat.

  • Lure your dog onto the mat with the treat. As soon as all four paws are on the mat, place the treat on the mat in front of him.

  • As soon as he eats it, drop another treat onto the mat every 2 or 3 seconds for up to 10 seconds.

  • Say “okay” and encourage him off the mat as he finishes eating the last treat and start over.

  • Repeat until your dog successfully stays on the mat for 10 seconds 3 times in a row.

  • To increase the time your dog stays on the mat, begin waiting longer between treats. You may move to 5 seconds, then 10, and so on. Only increase when he is successful at the level you are at! If he is not having much success, make it easier by shortening the time.

  • If your dog gets up from the mat, lure him to get on again. When he does, do not give him a treat right away! Count up to the same number of seconds you were requiring before he got up. Otherwise, he will learn that it is faster to go on and off the mat than to stay in position.

  • Once your dog can stay on the mat for 10 seconds between treats for a total of 30 seconds, start to build in the “down”!

  • If your dog already knows how to lie down and we discussed cueing him to do the behavior, skip the next bullet. If your dog is NOT being cued verbally, continue to the next bullet.

  • If your dog does not know how to lie down or you are not cuing him verbally, you can lure him into position. Get your dog into a sit on the mat, then put a treat to his lips and slowly draw your hand down to the floor, in between his paws, and then out slightly. As soon as his elbows hit the floor, drop that treat between his feet.

  • Begin treating your dog every 2 or 3 seconds he is lying down on the mat. You need to feed him frequently enough that he is unlikely to stand up or walk away. (Some dogs may need a treat every second, that’s okay!) Place the treats between his paws, on the mat.

  • If your dog is staying on the mat successfully most of the time (e.g. You count to 3 a total of 10 times, and he gets up only once), increase the time between treats just as before. Remember to throw in some "easy" ones, so things don't just get harder and harder.

  • Act casually! Try not to make direct eye contact or hold treats in your hands where your dog can see. This exercise is all about disengagement, you want to be as boring as possible.

  • When your dog can lie down and stay on the mat for 3 minutes while only receiving a treat once a minute or so, you are ready to start to teach your dog to relax.

  • It is entirely normal for dogs not to show signs of relaxation at this point. Don’t worry; if you’ve reached this point and your dog is staying on the mat, you are doing well!

Part 2: Teach your dog to relax

  • By now, your dog should walk onto the mat and lie down when you put it on the floor. Reward him by putting a treat between his feet.

  • Sit in your chair next to the mat. Watch him out of the corner of your eye, but try not to stare at him or engage him. It is best at this point if you do something else, like read a book or watch TV.

  • When he offers any signs that he is disengaging from you by looking away, rolling over onto his hip or putting his head down, reward him. You can also sporadically reward him for staying on the mat, we just want to focus on relaxation now!

  • Each time that you reward him, go right back to disengaging from him. Eventually, you should see that your dog assumes the same position again and again after the treat. For example, when you give him the treat for putting his head down, he eats the treat and immediately puts his head back down. Now, you are ready to increase the time that he has to perform this behavior to get the treat.

  • Begin to count the seconds your dog puts his head down, and reinforce exactly as you did for the down-stay. Reach the same 3-in-a-row success rate before making it longer.

  • Continue to increase the amount of time that your dog lies and relaxes on the mat until he can do this for 15 to 30 minutes, with treats several minutes apart Once he reaches this goal, he is ready to use relaxation for his behavior modification exercises!


  • Choose a room in which your dog is already comfortable.

  • Keep the food treats out of sight. In a dish or in your bait bag are great. Avoid bag crinkling!

  • Place treats on the mat between his feet instead of handing them to him.

  • Talk in soft tones. Say only what you need to.

  • Separate your other dogs from you while you are practicing.

  • Practice when your dog is not stressed. 

  • Pick up the mat and put it away between sessions. Leaving it out will weaken the association with relaxation.

  • Try to stay quiet. Don’t chatter non-stop or use high-pitched exciting tones.

  • Avoid physically manipulating your dog onto the mat or into a down. This will not help him to relax.

Once your dog and you have this down, you're ready to go on to your next steps!

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