Six steps to a zen dog

Article on how to teach your dog to be calm
By Laure-Anne Visele, written August 2012

The wonders of a calm dog

No-one likes an over-excited dog, myself included:

  • I don’t like to be nagged and jumped on and run circles around.
  • I hate the sound of barking.
  • Aaaand, good luck getting him do something, because an overexcited dog has the attention span of a hamster on crack.

A calm dog is a fun to be around. A raving maniac, not so much.

Here’s your shortcut to doggie zen.


1. Ban bowls

I’ve heard this tip from a show with Dr Ian Dunbar (that pioneer of scientific dog training): don’t feed your dog from his bowl anymore. Instead, give him all his food from a Kong.

For some dark and unknown reason, this magically “takes the edge off”.

2. Make “being calm” a command

The idea is that you can take your dog down a notch using a word.

  1. First, you’ll need to spot the moments he’s relaxed. We’re talking on a cruise sipping Pina Colada here.
  2. So, from now on, every time you spot this, calmly approach him (don’t get into his personal space, mind, or bend over him or corner him).
  3. Say ‘relaaaax’ very softly
  4. Drop a little treat next to his nose (quietly, no abrupt movements)
  5. Just scoot right on along. No petting, no touching, no disturbing his calm.

From now on, keep doing this for the rest of his life. Limit it to a couple of times a day max, or he might start looking out for you and he’ll never be truly calm. That would kind of defeat the point.

Another really good moment to ‘mark for calmness’ is when he is shaking himself off after a little scare.  This is the equivalent to our ‘Pheeeeew, glad THAT’s over‘. As soon as “the shake” starts, say your magic word (e.g. ‘relax’), praise him (chirpy, not overwhelming), then calmly give him a treat and move on.

After a couple of weeks, try saying the word when he’s not that relaxed (just a little alert, not full blown panicked). If you see that he relaxes, calm and quick praise, then treat. You know the drill. Then get him away from the situation so it doesn’t escalate. You’ll need to address why he’s reactive in that situation, but that’s another story.

Saying ‘Relax’ is NOT going to help a phobic dog or a dog that is already over-excited. He could actually start associating the word with those bad moments. Not what you want. Only use your magic work if you think it has a chance of getting through to him.  If he’s beyond that point, DO NOT try it. Just get him away and reward as soon as he’s calm again.

A video speaks louder than words: onto wonderful Emily Larlham for one of her trademark short videos:

3. Don’t be no coward now

When it comes to bravery, some dogs are, well, a little retiring. Others are a little on the scaredy side. And then there dogs like mine used to be: afraid of being afraid of being afraid of their own shadow.

It’s taken me a while, but when something (mildly) spooks him now, instead of cowering or running away or fear-barking, he composes himself and inspects the thing. This is what I did: I just kept making up games that pushed his limits.

He used to be scared of floating plastic bags, flags, kites, roller bladers, leaves, cars, trucks… Pretty much anything unfamiliar (he has a pretty sordid past).

So I started to playfully encourage him to check out the ‘danger’. I’d strategically place a treat on the very thing he was scared of. He’s still no Clint Eastwood, but he’ll go through tunnels, walk on loud metal planks, brave open stairs, nose-kiss a clapping flag, and we’re working on the ring of fire (OK, I made that last one up). He’ll do pretty much anything if I present it as a game, and if I don’t let his apprehension escalate.

So if your dog gets easily (but only mildly) spooked, see every one of these little moments as an opportunity to build up his courage. Lesson? Novelty = opportunity, not threat. Slowly but surely, this will affect how relaxed he generally is, and he’ll also become easier to manage and A LOT more fun to be around.


We’ve all been there. The dog is driving us round the bend. People are looking disapprovingly and we want to show that really, we ARE disciplinarians. So we dramatically tell him off and feel like complete idiots inside as we know there’s no way in the world this is going to work.

I can see how situations get there, and it keeps happening to me even, but the truth is: shouting – just – never – works. It might, just might, startle the dog into (briefly) stopping, but then what are we going to do next time? Scream louder?


State-of-the-art dog training is to whisper our commands. Anything that gets us further from that and nearer to a screaming maniac is just, well, a slippery slope to a lot of very ineffective training, a lot of guilt, and a lot of frustration.

The dog reacting means the dog is in a situation that he can’t handle. It’s bloody annoying that he can’t handle it when every dog and his uncle can, but there you have it. The best we can do is to get our cool head back on, calmly get the dog away from the situation, and work out how to tackle it when we’re a little bit calmer.

I get it. We’re only human. We only have so much patience. We get frustrated. It still happens to me a lot so shout if you must, but just don’t fool yourself into thinking that the dog is having a learning moment.

And the funny thing is, it doesn’t even make me feel like I’ve relieved my frustration better. I walk away from these situations feeling really guilty towards my dog. Sure he’s an idiot. That’s why I should know better.

Another (rather obvious) side-effect of shouting is that the dog is made even less relaxed. We’ve basically just upped the adrenaline another notchNo-one in this world can startle a dog into feeling calm.

Teaching him calm is a long-term game, an attitude, good habits.

5. Burn that energy

They do great dog-aerobics videos… Actually, not even sure am kidding there. Am sure it’s just around the corner as the latest Doggiwood fad.

So, anyway, there are other ways for your pet to burn energy than very long walks (although they’re always a winner). For days when you’re pushed for time, there are tons of ideas for low-tech games you can play inside with your dog. And when I say low-tech, I really mean low-tech. We’re talking get a couple of Tupperwares from your kitchen cupboard and grab a chair or two. Once you start Googling it, you’ll discover a world of really fun and inventive ways to amuse your dog (and the family) inside the house.

An eternal winner is the ‘find the treat’ game and its many many many variations. Here’s a little factoid for ya: Scent-tracking actually burns more calories than the same amount of time doing aerobic exercise.

But let me get back on message. If you’re the sporty kind, don’t overdo it. I know someone who wanted to tire out his insane teenage dalmatian so he started taking him on bike rides. Before he knew it, he was doing two hours of hardcore cycling a day and the dog wasn’t breaking a sweat (so to speak). See what he did? He went and improved his (already eerily athletic) dog’s condition, and now he needed even more exercise. Don’t get me wrong, daily aerobic exercise is an absolute must for your dogs, but don’t be doing around the clock or you’ll be creating yourself a Rocky-like monster.

They also make really fun mental games (Google Nina Ottosson for some great examples) if you have a bit of cash (they’re not cheap at 25 dollars a game, but you’ll get hours and hours and hours of entertainment out of it).

6. Teach him patience and how to cope with a bit of frustration

If the dog can’t ever wait for the reward after performing for you, you might want to try this. Am talking of a dog who, for example, less than a second after he has sat (on your command), tries all the other tricks in the book to get something, rather than calmly wait for the treat. If you’re not quick enough, he’ll quickly graduate to demand barking and that’s a slippery slope to a diva-like dog in the house.

So you’re going to gradually build up his tolerance for a delay in reward by increasing it a microsecond at a time, until he has that light-bulb moment. Here’s how it works:

  1. (you) ‘Sit’
  2. Dog sits and looks expectantly
  3. Dog gets antsy, or show some signs that he’s going to start carrying on and JUST BEFORE THAT, reward him and release him from his sit

Feel free to repeat this a few times per session.

Do not even let him start being demanding (we’re not letting him rehearse being an idiot). You’re going to have to get good at spotting micro-expressions that indicate he’s about to blow his top and you’ll need to reward JUST BEFORE that.

If you missed your moment and he’s started nagging, ignore his antics until he’s stopped. And I really mean ignore, here. Go as far as turning your head the other way so it’s blaringly obvious you’re not looking at him. If he doesn’t stop nagging (barking, mouthing your sleeve, jumping on you, etc.)  pretty much immediately, remove yourself from this inappropriate attention-seeking behaviour by leave the room.

If his nagging isn’t escalating, it might be worth waiting it out. Then, brace yourself for really frustrating ignoring episodes (Rome wasn’t built in a day): take a deep breath, hum a song, relax your facial muscles, and wait it out (again, provided it doesn’t escalate to an unacceptable level – either unacceptably long or unacceptably intense – in which case remove youself).

Do whatever it takes but whatever  you do, DO NOT GIVE HIM ANY ATTENTION WHEN HE IS CARRYING ON (no, not even scolding).

For extreme cases, you may want to use a tether so you can get away from his reach at will. But I would say that extreme cases need specialist attention. Contact a local behaviour expert if you think you need some help.

When it goes beyond a little excited

There is a difference between a hyperactive dog (verrrrrrrrrrrry rare, these dogs can barely sleep at night and need veterinary attention) and an overactive dog (common, and most are manageable).

There is also a difference between an overactive dog and a dog that has a profoundly fearful reaction, or a full-blown phobia. These guys need specialist help.

If you really can’t get your dog under control, contact a dog behaviour specialist. Best case scenario you’ll nip it in the bud in a couple of sessions. Worst case scenario is your dog has a profound behaviour problem, and it would be a ticking time-bomb to leave that unchecked. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and it’s well worth it to have a pet that actually adds quality to your life, rather than stressing you out.


I love to read your comments, so leave me your thoughts any time. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Are having trouble getting your dogs to be calm;
  • Are a trainer and you’ve other tricks to share to teach a dog to be calm

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  1. Posted 1 September 2012 at 12:08 | Permalink

    Step 7

    It was suggested by a friend of mine who is also a behaviour specialist. Some dogs are told ‘no’ ‘off’ ‘down’ all day long, and that brings the stress levels right up. If that’s your dog (constantly putting himself in situations where he’s being told off), it’s time to address each of these issues one by one and:

    1/ Teach him a very very very reliable ‘down’ or ‘off’ or ‘leave it’ not through intimidation and telling off, but in controlled practice sessions. See this one for how to teach a dog new stuff.

    2/ Manage the environment so that he will not get to practice these behaviours until you have the dog under excellent voice control (from step 1). This means removing temptation and giving him an alternative behaviour that is equally tempting, but acceptable to you.

  2. Posted 1 September 2012 at 12:10 | Permalink

    Step 8

    Again, suggested by colleagues of mine. A lot of behaviour counsellors swear by the Thundershirt. I haven’t tried it myself so I can’t comment, but I have to say I am yet to hear bad things about it.

  3. Posted 1 September 2012 at 12:15 | Permalink

    Step 9
    (These good suggestions definitely keep coming!)

    You could try T-touch or other animal massage techniques. Doesn’t take long and works WONDERS. I know that my (very anxious) dog becomes putty in my hands after a session.

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