Settle on a Mat: Making It Useful Everyday
Teaching your dog to settle on a mat is really useful skill.
When your dog settles on a mat, s/he lies down on that mat, wherever it is, and pretty much chills out. In last month’s newsletter, I introduced the concept of settle and gave you everything you needed to teach the basic “settle on a mat” behavior. After a month to “install” the behavior, now you’re ready to make it “everyday useful.” Here’s how we’re going to go from “installation” to “useful.”
Put a label on it.
The first thing we’ve got to do is put a label on what the dog is doing. Dog trainers call this a “cue.”
We label a behavior so we can ask for it whenever we want. The cue is a common language that you and the dog share. Ideally, you ask for the behavior and the dog does the behavior. You can use a word (a verbal cue) or a hand signal (a visual cue). There are other types of cues you can use, but for this article, we’ll stick with the two most obvious cues.
When to add the cue.
If you’ve practiced the steps in last month’s article, your dog is probably going to that mat pretty darn predictably now. That’s exactly what we need before we add the cue to any behavior — predictability. I tell people “You’re ready to add the cue when you’ll bet me $100 that the dog will do the behavior.”
So, when you’re $100 certain, start adding the word (or the hand signal) to the process. Here’s how it goes: (1) dog is walking toward the mat; (2) say “settle” or whatever word you choose just as the dog is getting ready to step their paw on the mat; (3) click when your dog goes to the mat and lies down; (4) toss the treat off the mat to reset your dog for the next repetition.
As the dog gets better and faster at returning to the mat, say the word just a little earlier — maybe when the dog is one step away from the mat. Follow all the steps in the previous paragraph. As your dog gets more practice, say the cue earlier. Remember to say (or give) the cue just one time. If the dog doesn’t do the behavior, just wait. Resist the urge to repeat the cue.
Add the “stay.”
A settle is useful if you don’t need to be facing the mat — in other words, wouldn’t it be great if you could be in the kitchen prepping dinner and direct your dog to settle on his mat which is across the room? If you teach the three D’s (plus Direction) that will be a piece of cake for your dog! A stay is made up of three components: duration (how long the dog can do the behavior), distraction (what else is going on when the dog is doing the behavior), and distance (how far away from you can the dog do the behavior. In this case, we need to add one more “D:” Direction.
This is the easiest part. All you have to do is delay your click by a second or two. Here’s how it goes, in detail. Cue “settle.” After your dog gets to the mat and lies down, count to two seconds in your head. If your dog is still lying on the mat, click and treat. It’s that easy! You’ll gradually increase the time the dog stays on the mat before you click and treat. Goal: at least 20 seconds on the mat. Training tip: vary the difficulty — don’t always make it harder for your dog.
We are going to work on just one element of the stay at a time. This means, if we’re working on distractions, we don’t care at all about duration. This means we’re clicking the instant the dog settles in this part. Make a list of all your dog’s distractions and order them from easiest to hardest. We’re going to start with the easiest — this might be you moving your foot, waving your hand, or bending your knees. You want to be sure it’s easy for your dog to earn a click.
Start your distraction (start waving your hand, for example), then ask for settle. Click the instant your dog lies on the mat. Training tip: if the distraction is too difficult, remember — don’t repeat your cue. Simply reduce the distraction (wave your hand less vigorously, maybe), cue your dog, and click and treat when she’s successful.
Because distance involves both duration and distraction, we save it for last. Again, we don’t care about duration or distraction in this piece. We’re working only on distance.
Start by asking your dog to settle as you’ve always done. Click and treat when she’s successful. As she’s going to get the treat, take a step backward (away from the mat) and then cue “settle” as she’s coming back. Click and treat and take another step backward from the mat. Click and treat when she’s successful and take, you guessed it, another step backward.
At some point, there will be enough room for your dog to lie down between you and the mat. If your dog lies closer to you, but not on the mat, just wait her out. Look at the mat, but don’t say “settle” again. I’ll bet you she’ll adjust her position backward so she’s lying on the mat. Click and treat!
Just like before, we’re not going to worry about any of the other “Ds” while we’re working on direction. There won’t be any distractions, no duration, and no distance when you introduce the concept of direction to your dog.
Imagine that you’re standing in the very middle of a clock. 12 o’clock is directly in front of you, facing the dog. This is what “settle” has looked like for your dog (until now). We’re going to use each “hour” of the clock as a new direction challenge in this exercise.
Start at 12 o’clock and say “settle.” This should be super easy, click and treat when your dog is successful. Then you’re going to stand so your feet are facing 1 o’clock. Again, cue the settle, click, and treat when your dog gets it. Continue around the clock, maybe splitting the clock into 30-minute
segments as you near 3 o’clock. That position (3 o’clock) is the beginning of the “hard stuff.” Because at 4 o’clock, you’re actually facing a little bit in the other direction from the mat and the dog. Training tip: Prepare to split your training requests here. If 3 o’clock proves difficult for your dog, don’t jump to 4 o’clock as the next step. Stay at 3 o’clock a few times, then move to about 3:30.
After you’ve installed all four variables of “stay,” you’re ready to begin putting two pieces together at once. Ask for a short duration with a small distance, for instance. Or slight directional change with a mild distraction. When your dog is good at two combinations, add a third combination, then the fourth. Before you know it, you’ll have a solid settle behavior that is not only useful, but it’s pretty darn impressive, too!
Where and when will you use your dog’s Settle?
[updated 23 Apr 23]