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One of the most important steps to setting your dog up for success in life by your side is teaching your dog to settle on cue.
By shaping* a "go to mat" cue, your dog will have a reliable, safe and predictable place to lie where he or she knows good things happen. This is an incredibly useful cue to have in any situation.
There are many benefits of mat training your dog including:
- A mat can act as an "anchor" for your dog during moments of high arousal or stress, helping him/her to stay calm and focused
- A mat can provide a space for your dog to relax and unwind
- A mat can be used as a tool for managing your dog's environment, preventing him/her from getting into mischief or getting underfoot - Teaching your dog to "go to mat" can be the first step in teaching your dog to settle in any location, making it an excellent cue for travel and visits to the vet or groomer
Mat training, also known as place training, is a great way to teach your dog self-control and can be the foundation for many other more advanced cues and behaviors. Getting started with mat training is easy. All you need is a mat, some delicious treats and plenty of patience. Here's a step-by-step guide to mat training your dog.
*(In case you're wondering, what is "shaping?" It's a dog training term pet owners may often hear a certified professional dog trainer use that means encouraging your dog's behavior to naturally unfold into a desired behavior by breaking it down into a series of small, achievable steps with rewards giving your dog a feeling of success along the way - making it a reliable, go-to behavior for your dog with repetition and positive reinforcement, aka praise & high-value treats!)
Why & when "go to mat" is useful in your dog's life
Whether your dog tends to be reactive or not, whether you're in public or your own home, "go to mat" is a wonderfully supportive and versatile behavior to learn.
When you mat train your dog, you're giving your dog a safe space where he or she can lie quietly, confident in the knowledge that only good, rewarding things happen in that spot. You're giving your dog an alternative behavior - going to the mat and lying calmly - to replace unwanted behaviors that come with insecurity, fear (like barking, lunging, etc), or other motivations (like begging for or stealing food). You're giving your dog a new behavior that, with rewards and repetition, becomes more worth doing than the old behaviors.
Once you and your dog have "go to mat" in your repertoire of dependable cues, you'll both be able to enjoy having your dog by your side at your favorite outdoor cafe or being part of sane family dinners... and so many other situations where you want to be happily and safely living your best life together.
How to teach your dog a reliable "go to mat"
As we go through the details of the 3 steps for teaching your dog's "go to mat" behavior, you can also follow along and watch as I work with my dog in the video below on the foundation steps. I find it often helps to also learn visually to actually see and get the feel for timing and concepts like shaping, capturing, and luring!
Step 1: Get your clicker (or verbal marker), your dog's favorite treats, and your mat (or flat dog bed or blanket)
Before you've actually started mat training, the first step sets the stage for you to have everything you need in hand so you can easily reinforce your dog in the moment. You want your dog to immediately connect the marker and treat with the desired behaviors.
To do this, you'll need either a clicker (a small handheld device that makes a distinctive "click" sound) or a verbal marker (a word or short phrase like "yes!" that you say in a happy voice when your dog is doing the right thing). I prefer to use a clicker because it's an unambiguous sound that I can make quickly and consistently, but some people prefer to use a word like "yes" or "good" as their marker. Either way is totally fine.
You'll also need treats that are special enough - and small enough - that your dog will want to work for them. (If you're not sure what qualifies as a high-value treat for your dog, start with something from his/her meal or a tiny bit of cooked chicken, hot dog, cheese, etc.)
You'll also want to choose a quiet spot in your home for mat training, as well as what you want to use as your mat (can be a blanket or a flat, not-too-thick dog bed as well... so your dog can identify it as a safe, comfy "homebase" and easily walk onto it without stepping up or over sides especially at the beginning).
Step 2: Place the mat in front of your dog...
Now that you have everything you need, it's time to introduce the mat as a special place where good things happen. You want your dog to start seeing the mat - and eventually going to the mat - as something very positive.
To do this...
- Place the mat in front of your dog (I like to put it about a foot away to start)
- Click & drop a treat when your dog puts any paws on the mat.
- Continue to treat for several seconds.
- Toss a reset treat away from the mat for your dog and repeat
You want your dog to start making the connection that the mat = good things happening, so don't be shy about clicking and treating often at first! Remember, we're trying to create a very positive association with the mat.
Step 3: Once your dog is reliably walking onto the mat with 3-4 paws after the reset, wait...
And most dogs will offer a sit if that behavior has been reinforced in the past.
- Then when your dog sits, click & reward
- Toss a reset treat & repeat
- Click & treat any sits & downs on the mat
- Once your dog is reliably sitting, down is next. The down position can be captured, shaped, or lured.
We've talked about shaping... if you're wondering about the differences, "capturing" is simply when your dog naturally offers the behavior (lying down) and you quickly start offering rewards so your dog knows that was the thing to do and will repeat it in the future for treats; "luring" is using treats to gently guide your dog into position (in this case, with a downward movement) and rewarding generously once your dog is in (the down) position. When your dog is lying on the mat, you can give your dog a favorite chew toy or whatever your dog enjoys that enhances the feeling of the mat as a safe, happy, calm place to be.
Pro tips: take breaks when mat training & keep it simple...
1. Stop if you or your dog get frustrated!
2. The training basics are important - keep it simple till you've really got them down.
As with everything in dog training, take your time, be patient, and work at your dog's pace. And enjoy the process! While you're building this new skill with your dog, you're also building your bond and communication skills with each other. And your dog gets lots of high value treats! So many wins for both of you in this training.
Setting both you & your dog up for success: starting goal & future goals
I recommend thinking about training "go to mat" in two stages with two goal mindsets. Remember, we always want to set our dogs up for success - for the ultimate goal and also for many easier, step-by-step wins along the way. It's the surest way to establish this new behavior with your dog in a way that sticks... and have more fun together while you're at it.
Starting goal: the initial mat training stages are most important
We want the mat to be a happy place your dog chooses to go on his/her own. This is what you're training for in the beginning mat training stages I described above. You'll know your dog is understanding what you're asking when he/she starts walking over to the mat on his/her own and sitting or lying down on it - even if only for a few seconds at first.
Here's what you're looking for and should be focused on in the initial mat training stages:
- Create a positive association with the mat: your dog learns the mat in his/her environment means good things
- Active engagement with the mat: anytime the mat is on the ground and your dog places paws on it, reinforcement will follow
- Pick up mat when not in use
- Sitting on the mat is better than only paws on the mat; better value reinforcement/higher value treats
- Lying on the mat is the best; this can be captured, shaped, or lured after the initial steps are in place
Once your dog is offering this mat behavior on his/her own, you're well on your way to having a dog who will settle calmly and happily on the mat when asked - even in new or challenging environments.
Future goals: take your time...
The mat can become a cue for your dog to "settle" or "place" - meaning, go to mat and lie down (or sit) until released. This can be a very useful behavior in many situations, both at home and out-and-about. But it's important not to rush things and to build up to this future goal slowly, in baby steps. Remember, we want the mat to always be a happy place for your dog - a place he/she chooses to go on his/her own and feels good about being on.
So take your time in mat training, have fun with it, and enjoy watching your dog learn this new skill!
Here's what you're looking for and should be focused on for future mat training goals:
- Your dog's response to seeing the mat is to lie down on it
- Adding in duration - gradually increase the time between reinforcement (treats)
- Adding in a verbal cue word or hand signal & a release cue word
- Adding in distance between you & your dog while your dog is on the mat
- Practicing in different environments (distractions)
- Putting it all together
When you're ready to take your mat training to the next level, check out the six step-by-step guides in the Manners Channel here on Dogly to teach your dog to go to his/her mat and stay there, with distance, and when you add distractions. You'll find mat training tips, how-tos, and troubleshooting along the way.
Remember, have fun with your mat training! It's a great way to build focus, concentration, and calmness in your dog while you're also deepening your bond and communication.
Next up in the Manners Channel on Dogly
Now that you've learned how to help your dog settle anywhere with a reliable "go to mat" cue in a public setting, continue to other step-by-step guides from certified force-free dog trainers in the Manners Channel on Dogly.
Hop over to the Manners Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Food Manners, Basic Manners, Public Manners, or Holiday Manners.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!