As humans we are constantly learning new things. New skills, new information, and practicing new behaviors. From learning to play an instrument, speaking a new language, or simply sprucing up our culinary skills, our growth truly has no limit! However, our ability to learn, retain new information, and practice these new skills relies on a certain level of relaxation. If we perceive the environment we’re in to be strange, if we’re feeling stressed, or we’re emotionally or physically exhausted, our ability to access new skills or learned information becomes harder, and sometimes, even seems impossible. Relaxation as a part of learning and practicing new skills is often overlooked and rarely given the attention it deserves in learning environments. These same things that affect a person’s ability to learn, practice skills or retrieve information, also affect our canine companions. Have you ever asked your dog to sit and found that they just stared blankly at you?
While you may be thinking, “My dog knows what to do! Why won’t they listen to me?” the reality is that often times, when our dogs are unable to perform behaviors or their brains are taking longer to retrieve previously learned and practiced skills, their level of relaxation may be in question. Of course, there are also the questions of how well does your dog actually know this skill and have they been taught how to practice this skill in this particular environment? That is a topic for another day, but ultimately, the rehearsal of known behaviors or recently learned skills requires some relaxation. So how do you build or teach relaxation?
Familiarity & Routine. True for both humans and dogs, simply becoming more familiar with a space overtime can increase relaxation. Similarly, an established routine requires less mental energy thus allowing for more relaxation in daily life. This routine and predictability allow for a greater sense of safety and security, more comfort when learning new things, and can increase stability and resilience when faced with new opportunities to learn and practice skills. This increase in comfort through familiarity and routine can even increase sociability in some instances.
Meeting Basic Needs. A dog’s ability to function in a healthy way requires that basic needs are met prior to learning or rehearsing behaviors. If the necessary cycles of sleeping, eating, and both mental and physical exercise are achieved, the likelihood of relaxation and the ability to practice new or old skills increases. When comparing this to our needs as humans, a dog’s needs are almost perfectly aligned; healthy rest, food, and exercise are all components that effect our ability to be successful at school or work. We can thank our nervous systems and the hormones that are produced when these basic needs are met that allow us to achieve great heights!
Rest & Recovery. While rest is a part of a dog’s basic needs, oftentimes it’s not included as a part of their daily structure. Thoughtfully accommodating a dog’s need for regular rest and recovery from play, training, socializing, and exercise is important in building and maintaining relaxation and comfort. Teaching our dogs to feel comfortable when confined in a room or crate will ultimately lead to more healthy recovery post high-energy engagement and can lead to more successful training, play, and socializing in future scenarios. This can be accomplished and maintained by building positive associations and a positive history with confinement. These positive associations can be built over time with the use of food enrichment and puzzle toys that set dogs up to self-sooth through licking, chewing, and mental enrichment, causing a release of the happy and calming hormone, serotonin. Whether at home or at day care, taking regular, structured breaks to rest can also mean that the integrity of social skills and known behaviors is stronger long-term. Dogs who are not regularly overtired or overstimulated are more likely to practice healthier play behaviors and are more socially appropriate overall.
Patterns of Play & Fun. Related to both routine and basic needs, patterns of play and fun greatly aid in learning new information and rehearsing known behaviors. Play, anticipation of reward, and having fun produce endorphins and dopamine in the body. The release of these hormones feels good and helps to keep dogs (and people) happy and can even strengthen relationships. Lighthearted training games that make rewards easy to achieve can build engagement, attention, focus, and relaxation. These games can be as simple as playing a game of tug when your dog looks at you, feeding treats when they smell the ground, or practicing their favorite trick. Practicing these known play patterns can help a dog acclimate to a new environment more quickly and increase relaxation immensely.
When hoping for our dogs to behave in a certain way, or perform certain skills, there are several questions to ask. Do you like what I have to offer you? Is my criteria clear and have I taught you what I’m asking for in this environment? And most importantly, are you comfortable and relaxed enough to be successful? Because at the end of the day, building relaxation is one of the most powerful ways we can support our dogs, and without it, their ability to learn skills or rehearse behaviors is surely impacted. At Central Bark we recognize the importance of routine, rest, and play in creating and maintaining comfort and relaxation for all of the dogs in our care. We have structures in place that set dogs up to be as successful as possible when socializing with other dogs, practicing life skills, and learning new behaviors. How can you incorporate these practices into your life with your dog?
See you next time, at Central Bark!
Carla is an Operations Field Representative for Central Bark and co-owns a dog training and behavior consulting business, Good Karma Canine. Carla has three dogs Karma, a seven-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier Mix; Gypsy, a five-year-old Bull Terrier/Lab Mix; and Newt, a two-year-old Chihuahua.