Lori Holmberg, M.A.
The definition of relax is to make less tense, rigid or firm. Teaching your dog or cat how to relax is as important as teaching him how to sit or come when called.
It can be used to calm him when he becomes excited or to help get control of him when he is out of control.
In addition, relaxation exercises are commonly used in conjunction with many behavior modification programs utilizing desensitization and counter conditioning techniques. Some examples include treating aggressive behavior, chaos at the door, fears and phobias, and separation anxiety (See related handouts).
How to teach your pet to relax
To teach your pet how to relax, you first need to get him to lie down quietly. It is virtually impossible to teach an animal to relax if he is up moving around. You can teach your pet how to lie down and stay (yes, you can teach a cat how to lie down!).
Once your pet is in the down position, begin to massage his neck and shoulders or give him a good tummy rub (rub your cats cheeks, scratch under chin, massage the top of his head between his ears).
You should be able to find some place your pet likes to be massaged. This is where you start. If your pet does not like to be handled, talk to him quietly and soothingly and gradually try to touch him.
Give your pet treats for his relaxed and calm behavior only if it doesn’t excite him. Otherwise, use verbal praise for the relaxed and calm behavior. Gradually praise more relaxed behavior (i.e., less wiggling and mouthing and quieter breathing).
After you can get your pet to settle and lie quietly, begin to use a word to cue the relaxed state. Use “relax” or “settle” or any other word that doesn’t already mean something to him so it won’t confuse your pet. Say this word when you want your pet to lie down and relax and repeat it as you massage your pet. After many pairings, your pet will associate the word with the behavior and the relaxed state and you will have verbal control over him.
Practice the relaxation exercise 2-3 times per day for 5-15 minutes a session. Begin the exercises in a quiet room without distractions such as TVs, radios, or people and pets moving about. As soon as your pet can remain relaxed without distractions in several sessions, try other rooms in the house. Gradually, work toward having your pet relax in other places such as his pet carrier, in the back and front yard, in the car, and at parks.
Incorporate relaxation into your daily routine by having a relaxation session following a walk, a game of fetch, tug of war, or play with a wand toy. Cue your pet to lie down and relax and give a massage and praise for relaxed behavior. The contrast from excitement to quiet helps bring home the meaning of “relax.”
In addition, use “relax” with your pet just prior to your leaving for work or an errand. When you go, leave him with a special toy stuffed with a tasty treat to help relieve the boredom of being alone. Whether you leave him in a crate or free in the house, reducing his arousal prior to leaving makes it less likely he will find destructive things to do or become anxious.
You can also teach your pet to go to a specific place such as a pet carrier, crate, pet bed/pillow, or mat/rug to relax. To teach him to go to his place, start by using a treat to lure him to the “place.” Break into steps if necessary, and treat the behavior that approaches the desired behavior such as walking towards the place, putting one paw on the mat, then two paws, or simply going into the crate, and then treat and praise him.
Once he can go to his place on cue, you can then begin to do relaxation exercises in that place. Eventually, you will be able to tell your pet to “go to your place and relax,” and he will. Teaching your pet to go to his “place” can be useful in dealing with chaos at the door, excitement with visitors coming into the house, dinner time begging, leaving him alone for a period of time, or introducing new pets.
What not to do
Don’t force your pet to lie down and relax. It won’t happen. Forcing will make your pet excited or fearful which is incompatible with relaxation. Don’t move too quickly with the training. Make sure your pet can relax in quiet places with few distractions before you try to teach him to relax in more exciting situations.