Baseline Training for Fearful Dogs: The Relaxation Protocol
Does the Relaxation Protocol work to teach dogs to be calmer? We first began using the Relaxation Protocol in fall of 2007. Back when I first posted these audio files, I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of this detailed, tedious form of behavior modification. Today, some 18 months later, let me be clear. This Relaxation Protocol provides critical baseline training for fearful (or reactive or aggressive) dogs. I honestly think it sets such an important foundation that I will likely use it with all dogs in my future — whether they are fearful or not.
As I noted then, on paper, these protocols seem overwhelming. To help myself, I created these audio files so that I could listen to them on my iPod while I did the training work with Lilly. I can tell from blog traffic statistics that people all over the world continue to access them.
What is the Relaxation Protocol?
The original protocol developed decades ago has been updated and modified by various animal behaviorists. Dr. Karen Overall developed the version upon which these audio files were created. Simply right-click on each one and select Save Link As in order to save the MP3 audio file onto your computer.
I’m really boiling things down here, but essentially the protocol teaches a dog to settle and defer to you in no matter what happens. Through food rewards and calm, quiet praise, the dog learns good associations with the various stimuli. It’s essentially a formatted, systematic way to use classical conditioning to teach a dog to feel better and relax.
Does the Relaxation Protocol Work?
So, does the Relaxation Protocol work? We did weeks and weeks of this 15-day routine in 2007 and early 2008, where we did the whole series in a bunch of different locations. Then in mid-2008, our own behaviorist gave me a detailed behavior modification plan with similar protocols better tailored to Lilly’s fears, including certain moving objects, all manner of noises, strange people of all shapes and sizes, and dogs of all kinds. It took us months to get through each stage completely. Now, we’re using similar strategies in real-life scenarios to continue our progress of building Lilly’s ability to handle any Sudden Environmental Change (SEC) we experience when we’re in public. SEC is just a fancy way of saying something changes that could possibly freak Lilly out.
Early on, working on my own, I let Lilly lay down if she wanted to, but once we started working with our behaviorist, she really wanted me to get Lilly to SIT since a very specific form of laying down (kind of like this recent dog show video) is a “shut down” behavior for Lilly, and we wanted to avoid rewarding that accidentally. Plus, we wanted to keep her working from her thinking brain, not her fear brain, and making a decision to SIT helps with that.
Look at Training Updates and other posts from July 2008 forward to follow our ongoing saga. If you’re new or catching up, our treatment plan includes clomipramine and alprazolam to help Lilly cope with her fears. The whole medication story is filed under Dogs on Drugs.
I won’t kid you. This is hard, tedious work. It takes a tremendous amount of human and dog discipline day in, day out, but I truly believe it has laid the foundation for the progress Lilly is making (no matter how small).
A Few More Ideas
Choose small treats since you’ll be using so many in such a short time. Zuke’s Mini Naturals are a good option if you cut them in half.
If you’re already using DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) and your dog is conditioned that the scent means safety and calm, then go ahead and spray that on your dog’s relaxation mat or bed for each session. If you don’t already have a dedicated relaxation mat, consider a raised bed or platform.