Teaching your dog to settle and relax on command is an extremely useful skill. A settled, relaxed dog is a happy, content dog. Dogs that struggle to relax are often stressed, anxious, or over-aroused. This can lead to behavioral issues like reactivity, barking, restlessness, and destructive behavior.
Settling and relaxing is an unnatural state for dogs. In the wild, a dog that lies down and relaxes could miss important sights, sounds, and smells that are essential for survival. Their instincts tell them to stay alert and ready to react. As a result, relaxation and settling has to be taught.
Teaching your dog to relax involves conditioning them to associate lying down and staying in place with positive feelings. With enough repetition, they learn to override their instincts and settle in response to a cue. A relaxed dog is able to ignore environmental distractions, control their impulses, and remain calm.
Relaxation skills are useful in many situations. A dog that can settle on cue is easier to examine at the vet, groom, or handle. Settling makes car rides less stressful and prevents inappropriate behavior when guests visit your home. It also helps your dog cope with loud noises like thunderstorms or fireworks.
The following tips will help you teach your dog to relax and settle in a wide variety of situations. With patience and consistency, you can give your dog an "off switch" to help them power down whenever needed.
Train Settling and Relaxation at Home First
Start your training at home in a low-distraction environment. This allows your dog to learn the settling process without having to contend with outside stimuli. Introduce distractions slowly over time.
To begin, ask your dog for a simple behavior they already know, like sit or down. Reward with praise and treats. After 5-10 repetitions, start adding a “stay” cue. Take a step back and return to reward if they remain in place.
Gradually increase the duration of the stays. Release your dog and reward intermittently with treats, pets, and praise. This teaches them to remain settled until released.
Once your dog can stay for 30 seconds or longer, add the verbal cue “settle”. Say it when they are relaxed in a down stay. After repeating this frequently, say “settle” as a cue before your dog lays down. With enough repetition over several short sessions, they will learn to settle on verbal command alone.
Use Mats or Rugs to Help Dogs Relax
Place mats and rugs around your home and designate them as “settle areas.” Teach your dog to relax on these mats with treats and praise. This gives them a visual cue to help them understand where you want them to settle.
Practice having your dog go to their mat, lay down, and stay relaxed for progressively longer durations. Praise calm behavior and ignore any signs of restlessness. Eventually phase out food rewards.
In time, have your dog settle on their mat when guests enter your home without getting up to investigate. This prevents jumping up or inappropriate interaction. Mats are also useful in offices, cars, and outside parks. They serve as a mobile “off switch” whenever your dog needs to relax.
Use Treats Strategically When Training
Food rewards are very effective when teaching settle and relaxation commands. However, treat delivery should be strategic.
Give treats frequently at first to reinforce the desired behavior. But avoid rewarding every single down stay multiple times. This can create a pattern of restlessness — your dog will get up after every treat to earn another one.
Instead, return and reward just before your dog breaks the stay. Increase how long they have to wait randomly between rewards. This teaches patience and true duration. Reward calmness, not just the action of lying down.
Gradually reduce treat frequency as the behavior strengthens. Reward intermittently with praise or pets. This prevents your dog from becoming dependent on constant food rewards.
Use Audio and Tactile Cues
Incorporating auditory and tactile cues can enhance relaxation training.
Try playing ambient music, audiobooks on low volume, or white noise during training sessions. These calming sounds get your dog used to tuning out background noise. Avoid loud or abrasive noises.
Gently petting or massaging your dog while they are settled further establishes staying relaxed as a positive experience. Some dogs also respond well to gentle stroking over the eyes to encourage closing them.
Any type of steady, soothing contact can help reinforce a relaxed state during training. Combined with verbal praise, it conditions your dog to associate settling with calm, happy feelings.
Use Dog Appeasing Pheromones
Introducing a synthetic Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) during training can encourage relaxation. DAPs mimic natural soothing pheromones produced by nursing mother dogs. The scent has a calming effect.
DAPs are available in diffusers, sprays, wipes, and collars. Use them during initial relaxation training to influence your dog's mood and lower stress. Place diffusers near your dog's settle area. Or spray DAP on mats, beds and toys. Using DAP products routinely can improve training success.
Start Relaxation Training in a Crate or Small Room
An enclosed crate or small room with minimal distractions is an ideal starting point for relaxation training. This setting reduces outside stimuli that can prevent settling.
Place your dog's bed or mat in the crate or room along with some toys. Reward your dog with treats for going inside voluntarily. Praise calm behavior and give treats for relaxing on their bed.
Gradually increase the time your dog spends relaxing in the enclosure. Use DAP or music to further support the quiet setting. Training in an enclosed space allows you to establish relaxation skills before generalizing to more stimulating areas.
Troubleshoot Common Struggles with Settling
Some dogs struggle to grasp the settling and relaxation process. Here are some common challenges and how to address them:
Getting up frequently: Reward longer stays, use intermittent treats, and reward calmness over just lying down. Practice more reps for shorter durations.
Refusing to lie down: Ensure your dog knows the “down” cue. Lure into position by holding a treat to their nose and moving it down to the floor. Shape the behavior in small increments.
Breaking stays: Increase duration slower. Reward before your dog breaks the stay with praise or treats. Practice more often in short sessions.
Attention seeking: Ignore attention-seeking behaviors. Reward calmness and relaxation only. Manage the training environment to prevent rewards for unwanted behavior.
Barking/whining: Add background noise to promote tuning out distractions. Reward silence and calmness, not vocalizing. Teach an “enough” cue to signal that barking ends rewards.
Consistency is key when troubleshooting. Stick with short, frequent training sessions to set your dog up for success during the relaxation learning process.
Use Relaxation Cues in Daily Life
Once your dog understands basic relaxation cues, work on generalizing this skill to real-world situations. Practice short settling sessions during your regular daily routine.
Use the “settle” cue when your dog starts to get restless or over-excited during play. Cue relaxation during long walks if your dog pulls on leash or gets highly stimulated. Have your dog settle while you watch TV, work from home, or engage in other stationary activities.
The more you integrate relaxation cues into everyday scenarios, the more habitual settling and calming behaviors will become for your dog. Real world practice is key for proofing this skill.
Settle Your Dog Around Other Dogs
Dogs often have trouble relaxing around other canines. But being able to settle in the presence of other dogs is essential.
Start by having two calm, well-trained dogs relax on leash at a distance from each other. Reward with treats anytime they obey a “settle” cue near the other dog. Gradually decrease the distance between canines over many short sessions.
You can also practice group relaxation cues in a group obedience class environment. Take advantage of having multiple dogs around but in a controlled setting. Work up from short settles to longer durations with the trainer’s guidance.
Settling around other dogs helps prevent leash reactivity and teaches impulse control. It also paves the way for relaxing during exciting activities like going to the dog park.
Apply Relaxation Cues in Exciting Environments
Once your dog has mastered settling at home, start practicing relaxation cues in more exciting places. This challenges your dog to tune out fun distractions.
Take your dog to a park or hiking trail. Use their mat and give frequent “settle” cues whenever they start focusing on passersby, wildlife, or other area attractions. Reward calm behavior.
You can also practice at outdoor malls, downtown areas, or outdoor restaurants. Expect to take a few steps back in duration at first when faced with these novel stimuli. Keep training sessions short and reward generously for successes.
Gradually increase the difficulty level by trying exciting new locations. The more places you practice relaxation skills, the better your dog will generalize across environments.
Use Relaxation to Manage Stress
A dog that has mastered settling on cue is better equipped to handle stressful situations. Relaxation commands can help manage your dog’s anxiety.
Cue your dog to settle when fireworks start going off nearby or a thunderstorm rolls through. You can also use “settle” to minimize anxiety and barking when a delivery person comes to the door.
If your dog rides in the car with any nervousness, have them relax in a back seat crate or on a mat. Providing a safe space combined with relaxation cues prevents motion sickness, panting, and pacing.
You can even use “settle” prior to and during veterinary exams to reduce anxiety. The more you practice cues in stressful contexts, the more tolerance your dog builds.
Make Relaxation Part of Your Dog’s Routine
To make settling and relaxation a habit or default behavior, incorporate it into your daily routine.
Require your dog to relax on their mat for a period before you put down their food bowls. Prior to opening doors for walks, ask for a settled behavior first. Watch TV or read while your dog relaxes nearby. Crate your dog for scheduled relaxation periods.
Pick consistent times every day for short “settle” sessions. Set a reminder if needed. Making relaxation a predictable part of your dog’s routine will encourage them to offer the behavior automatically. Dogs thrive on routine.
You’ll also want to reward offered relaxation behaviors anytime they occur, even when not cued. If your dog voluntarily goes to their mat or settles while you’re busy, praise or give them a treat. This reinforces taking initiative to relax.
Relaxation training takes a great deal of time and consistency, especially for energetic, easily distracted, or anxious dogs. Some dogs pick up settling skills quickly, while others progress very gradually.
Stick with short, frequent training sessions and don’t move too quickly between steps. If your dog struggles, go back to an easier version for more practice. Keep sessions fun and end on a positive note.
Try to remain calm and patient. Your energy impacts your dog’s ability to relax. Providing a secure, soothing environment and rewarding all progress will pay off over time.
With daily practice and positive reinforcement, you can teach even the most high-strung dog how to settle and relax on cue. The result is a happier, well-adjusted canine companion.