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Paws & Reflect: What Our Dogs Teach Us

Life today can take a toll. Whether it’s the sheer number of responsibilities we juggle or the hectic schedules we keep, life can be exhausting! What we crave is some down time where the constant hum of life takes a back seat for a few moments. 

Just like we humans need to make time to be still, calm and tune in with our surroundings, so do dogs. During these difficult Covid-19 times while we must remain present, it’s equally essential to reflect on all the little things that bring us joy and positivity

In amongst all of the ‘busy’ it’s easy to overlook the importance of teaching our dogs and perhaps ourselves how to simply ‘Be’

An exercise as simple as taking your dog out to a public space and sitting quietly taking in all the sights, smells, sounds and just watching the world go by, is a good starting point. 

Relax breathe, look and listen to the sounds of a neighbourhood, hear them, smell them, see them and be okay with it all. 
Remember, time you spend with your dog is never wasted, it strengthens your relationship, trust grows, and you gain confidence as your connection with your dog increases. 

I believe we can learn a lot from dogs about mindfulness, their lives revolve around living in the moment, being spontaneous while also being aware of the stimulus around them. As intuitive creatures, dogs listen and interpret our tone of voice, body language and energy on an innate level, often more deeply than many of our human friends. 

Kindness, gentleness and forgiveness are more virtues dogs gift to us, they have a special way of imparting to us exactly what we need. Never holding a grudge, they greet us with happiness, continually turn to us for affection, guidance and reward. They remind us to be content and to just enjoy the moment.

How to Train Your Dog to be Calm and Relaxed

Turning your back, being still and quiet without eye contact will encourage a dog to be near you in the same space but without the need for interaction. 

This helps condition your dog to being calm and relaxed when you yourself are still and thoughtful. Hanging out and being together with your dog without the need for words, or actions is important. We all need some down time. 

If your dog becomes frustrated by your lack of attention and begins to bark, it’s a good idea to teach a ‘Quiet’ behaviour.

Step 1. When your dog is near you and relaxed and quiet, grab a handful of treats. Now get your dogs attention, say ‘Quiet’. If he remains quiet say ‘yes’ and reward him with a treat.

Step 2. After enough repetitions using the command and rewarding the calm and quiet behaviour, your dog will begin to understand silence is what you’re after. It will probably take several weeks to condition this behaviour well enough so that you can use it when your dog barks.

Step 3. When your dog woofs a couple of times, use his name to get his attention. Give the ‘quiet’ command. The minute your dog is quiet, say ‘yes’ and reward him with a treat or calming pat.

Calming Behaviours

✔️ Touch can be a very useful tool when encouraging calm and relaxed behaviour. 

Slow, long, gentle pats down the side of your dog delivered with a quiet and temperate tone of voice induce calming. However, quick pats on the shoulder, delivered with an excitable tone of voice will arouse your dog and incite activity.

✔️ A ‘chin rest’ is a simple calming behaviour that you can you teach to your dog. 

Simply let your dog rest his chin in your hand, then reward him with gentle soothing pats. As your dog grows more familiar with this behaviour you can increase the duration of time. In addition to be a calming behaviour, this is a great precursor to other co-operative care behaviours.

Mindfulness Exercise

Once your dog has learned to be calm and relaxed in your presence without craving the need for constant stimulation you move on to mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness is important because it teaches a dog to settle when your energy changes and allows a dog to rest his mind and body.

Here is a simple mindfulness exercise to get you started. 

Go to the beach, sit in the sand and encourage your dog to lie next to you. Sit quietly, acknowledging the environment around you. Feel the warmth of the sun, the breeze, listen to the sounds of the ocean, scrunch the sand under your toes. 

Watch as each wave rolls into the shore, imagine your cares are riding that wave and as the wave breaks on the sand your cares are scattered and swept back into the sea as the water recedes. They are yours no more to hold. Repeat this until you feel your energy calm.

Now that you are in a state of peace, you can involve your dog with an easy mindfulness exercise. 

Keep your gestures and body movements small and understated and without speaking, gently put your hand under your dog’s paw. 

Feel the weight of his paw in your hand. Hold his paw for 10-15 seconds, gently place it back on the sand. Remaining silent, repeat with the other paw. 

Lie on Your Mat

How's the serenity? So much serenity! Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Another great tool is to teach your dog ‘lie on your mat’ as a reliable command. Why? Because it’s important that your dog learns to settle. Teaching your dog ‘lie on your mat’ is achieved by conditioning him to a command such as ‘on your mat’ and encouraging him to lie on a mat or rug on the ground. 
This then becomes his chill out spot. Remaining there until you release him. 

Before you commence teaching this, it’s a good idea to have trained your dog to have a ‘down’ command.

Step 1. Give your dog a mat or blanket that becomes his spot.

Step 2. With your dog on-lead, point to the mat and give the command ‘On your mat’ encouraging him to lie down. Say, ‘Yes’ and reward him with a treat.

Step 3. After a few repetitions, gradually increase the time you expect him to remain on his spot.

Stress Reduction

Did you know that sniffing for dogs is a great way for them to reduce stress?
There is no need for them to have eye contact or direct interaction with a person or dog. I think we may all be able to relate a little to the stress of constant direct interactions. 

Sniffing and scent matching games are fun for your dog, exercising his brain and focusing his attention on a task.  

Snuffle mats and snuffle balls are a favourite with my clients and their dogs. You can purchase them ready-made or if you are even the slightest bit crafty, you can make your own. Now there’s a great lockdown activity! Your dog can even be practising his ‘lie on your mat’ behaviour while you are busy making.

So, what is a Snuffle Mat or a Snuffle Ball? 

Snuffle Mats from Doggytopia
They are quite simply, rubber mats and balls with soft strips of material threaded through their holes and tied off. Polar fleece material works well as the fabric choices. It’s a great way to recycle old jumpers. 

What’s so great about Snuffle Mats? 

Snuffle mats and balls provide mental stimulation and are heaps of sniffing fun for your dog, they are washable, transportable, and easily repaired 

How does my dog use a Snuffle Mat?

To play the snuffling game, all you need to do is place a few of your dog’s favourite treats randomly through the mat and let your dog sniff them out. My tip is to use treats that aren’t too moist to avoid ending up with a very messy mat. 

Remember, you should always supervise your dog’s snuffling games
Above all, cherish the time you spend with your dog. Connect with your dog and build an awesome relationship and you too will experience one thing I know to be true… having a dog in your life is the best thing ever

There’s no need to take my word for it, the benefits of dog ownership are widely documented. They help relieve our stress, lessen loneliness, keep our secrets and love us unconditionally. How amazing is that! 

Whether our days have been joyous or devastatingly sad our dogs are there for us. They truly are our best friends.

written by Louise Harding from Animal Talent, August 2020 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About the writer

Louise Harding is a professional dog trainer, animal wrangler, presenter and author. She's trained numerous sled racing, agility and obedience champions. Her company, Animal Talent, supplies trained animal actors to the film and television industries. She's also a member of AAPTD and DOGS NSW and a proud life member of the Manukau Dog Obedience Club.

Louise presents regularly at major events, seminars and community gatherings. Her greatest desire is to help humans understand their dogs.

Her first book Nose to Tail: A Holistic to Training your Dream Dog was published in 2018. She's recently released  The Nose to Tail Workbooks, an essential guide for any dog owner offering very practical advice and easy to follow instructions with space to record your progress and questions.

This series will show you how and help you communicate and nurture a strong life-long bond with your dog. 


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