The Relaxation Protocol
You found the right place to learn more about the Relaxation Protocol for Dogs! When I first read about Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation in Leslie McDevitt’s book “Control Unleashed,” I had NO idea what it was about. None. Never heard of it. It’s considered baseline work for serious behavior modification training, like what I’m doing with Lilly. That much I got from the book, but it wasn’t until I saw the whole thing in print that a sinking feeling sunk me. I’m feeling better about it now, but here’s a bit about my journey so far.
Relaxation Protocol Back Story
The protocol, as I understand it, comes from a big clinical behavior book designed for PhD type behaviorists and veterinarians. That’s intimidating enough, even though I often interview board-certified veterinary specialists and other smarty-pants experts from various fields for the magazine articles I write.
The book is somewhat expensive, and it’s hard to find at your usual public library, so I went searching online for details about the protocol. It’s a very regimented thing, so without those details, it’s impossible to do. Thankfully, Leslie posted a 12-page file of the protocol as part of her Control Unleashed Yahoo Group.
The Main Goal of the Relaxation Protocol for Dogs
I’m really boiling things down here, but essentially the Relaxation Protocol for Dogs teaches a dog to settle and defer to you no matter what happens. And, while the instructions say SIT while this happens, while that happens, the goal is to get the dog to relax, lay down, whatever, rather than sitting at crazy, training attention.
For example, if Lilly thinks she’s going to learn something new or “train” in a formal sense, she gets very, very excited (at least at home). Generally speaking, a learning Lilly is NOT a relaxed Lilly. That’s one characterization I’m hoping to change since Lilly stresses out when that learning is made more difficult by being somewhere or near something that makes her nervous. As we’ve discussed before, she either shuts down or gets reactive toward (mostly) other dogs.
In the protocol, the dog can shift positions some, just not get up and wander around or misbehave. And, she gets rewarded after each little thing. Technically you should ask her to get up and sit again, or lay down again for each task, but many people reward dogs for staying put while you do various things the entire time. Repetition is what helps build new calmer pathways in the brain, but see what works best for your dog.
Tools and Tips to Make Things Easier for Dogs
Here are a few tools and tips that have really helped Lilly understand the difference between protocol work and other kinds of task training:
- Really small treats like Zuke’s Mini Naturals, cut in half, work well. Or if you can find Zuke’s Tiny Naturals, use those.
- Spray that DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) on your dog’s relaxation mat. Honestly, I don’t know if it helps, but it can’t hurt, especially if your dog already knows the scent. Adaptil Calmin Travel Dog Spray is a good option. And, while you can use a towel or small blanket as your relaxation mat, you can also get something like this Chuckit! Travel Bed or raised platform bed like this K&H Pet Products Pet Cot.
- Don’t use a clicker, if it excited your dog. Instead use your marker word or a generic praise word.
- Use a different tone of voice than you might for other “command” type work. I, for example, speak much more softly and lower in tone.
- Pay attention to your body posture. Rather than the “show me something,” frontal body and smiling face I use for shaping or games, I tip my head and turn my body a little, with my hands behind my back.
- Take deep breaths. Two days of protocol and breathing got Lilly to lay down from a sit without me asking.
- Shape calm traits (sleepy eyes, relaxed ears, head down) separately, then incorporate them into the protocol.
A Skeptic’s View
It’s very easy (and I’m guilty too) to look at this and think it’s just an obedience thing … like it’s a really, really reliable or really long stay, but it’s not. However, my first thought was, “That’s a LOT of sitting.” And, that’s all it is.
Well, if I’m being honest, I’ll also add that I thought it would not work. It made no sense to me. Intuitively, it just felt weird. And, even my trainer said she’d never tried it nor did she know anyone who had. In a way, she challenged me to be the first to really give it a spin and report back. (Now that I’m nearly done with round one, we both wonder how many people stick with it.)
So, in order to take on a training protocol that requires daily effort for 15 days in one location, then 15 days in another, then 15 days in another, etc., I had to suspend my disbelief. I had to tell my inner critic, my inner skeptic to shut the heck up. I had to believe that Dr. Overall in all her wisdom had a scientific basis for this protocol. I had to believe (or at least pretend to believe) that the pace and repetition and structure of the exercises had some quantifiable effect on a dog’s brain.
Ouch! My Brain Hurts!
But, here’s the problem: on the page, the protocol is visually overwhelming. The list of exercises swam in front of my eyes as I tried to keep my focus on Lilly so that I could reward her at the right times. Since my own brain could not hold more than a couple of instructions at a time, I kept consulting the page, losing my place, and breaking my connection with Lilly. Not good.
So, I had an idea … what if I recorded each day’s protocol so that I could listen to it on my iPod while I worked with Lilly? I asked around, and others who are working hard on the protocol liked the idea, so I did it. And, it’s helping a TON with its timed exercises and quiet gaps for things that require leaving the room, etc.
I’m not naturally an auditory learner, but I can be very task oriented when things come at a pace my brain can process. Plus, I tend to be more self-contained and calm when I’m wearing ear buds and using the iPod. I often wear it while running errands to block out noise and other people’s stress energy. So, I figured it would help in Lilly training too. And, it has.
Relaxation Protocol for Dogs Audio Files
Simply right-click on each one and select Save Link As in order to save the MP3 audio file onto your computer. Then, move them … however you do that for your mobile device or computer. Each one is about 5-10 minutes.
What’s interesting to me is that while recording these instructions I kind of zonked out. My brain went very still. Granted, I recorded several back to back, but that is, I believe, what’s supposed to happen to the dogs too, so I’m glad I had that experience. However, it may also mean that I missed a thing or two (or repeated something). If so, I’m sorry in advance if the recordings are not perfect.
Does It Work?
It will be many more weeks before I can report on Lilly’s full response to the protocol, so stay tuned.
For now, I’ll simply say that if you asked me on day 5, I would have said it was working. But if you asked me on day 13, I would have said it wasn’t.