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  • Kristen Renaud

Day 4 - 30 Days of Dr. Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol

February 1, Day Four

Today was a beautiful warm winter day in Maine. My family and I decided to take advantage of the weather by hiking and visiting the beach. We did a three mile off leash hike with Kirby and then spent about an hour walking along the beach. Kirby ran in and out of waves and loved every moment of our day.


As a result she was thoroughly exhausted when we returned to the apartment for training. During this process she has not had any issue completing the tasks in a full down position. She prefers this position over sit, and a complete down is typically her default position. However, today she was tired. She was not interested in going into a full down and coming back up throughout the training. She resisted the down cue, and opted only to sit. She only went into a full down when I lured her down with a piece of chicken. But she was not happy. She displayed some displacement signals such as yawning.


What good would the training be if I forced Kirby into a down? Since this training protocol is about reducing stress and improving your dog's ability to relax, I listened to Kirby's body language. We trained with her in a sit position over a down position.


Looking at your dog's body language during a training session is crucial. In fact, the instructions of the relaxation protocol specifically address evaluating dog body language during training. It states, "the dog will give you lots of cues about how it feels. We are rewarding the physical changes associated with relaxation and happiness and so will also reward the underlying physiological states associated with this (parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system). This means that if the dog is relaxed, its body is not stiff, the jaws hang relaxed and are not tense, the ears are alert or cocked but not rigid, its head is held gently at an angle, and the eyes are calm and adoring, you will be rewarding the nervous system responses that help your dog learn. If you mistakenly reward fear, tension, aggression, or avoidance, you will not make as much progress. If it is easier for you and the dog to be relaxed if the dog is lying down, do that."


That passage is critical to understand when training this relaxation protocol. And really any other cue for that matter. Kirby is usually much happier in a down rather than a sit, so we typically train with her completely lying down on the mat. Today she wanted to sit. The point is that dogs can have a choice during training. Do what is best for your dog during a training session. The relaxation protocol instructions state specifically that. If you force your dog into a position that you think your dog should be in over listening to your dog, you may reinforce the wrong behavior.


Kirby was not happy in a down today. If I had forced her into a down we probably would have regressed in this training. I would have rewarded a down position but I would have also reinforced less calm or anxious behavior. We opted for the relaxed behavior in a sit position. At the end of the session we had rewarded her being calm on the mat. We had accomplished the goal of the training - reinforcing her relaxed state not a specific position. Overall, it was one of the best training sessions we have done yet.

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