Paws for Peace – Reinforcing Calmness

Who? Me?

Rio had a rough start after our move. Sometimes he still goes back to barking at every little thing. He can be a very reactive dog. Reinforcing calmness along with managing inappropriate barking helps him to become calmer and more confident in his new environment. When he was young it was hard to catch him during any sort of calmness. For him at least confinement seemed to increase relaxation. It still does. I can put him in his crate after a barking fit and he might settle right down and go to sleep.

When he was a pup we sectioned off a portion of the house with a playpen fence so he only had access to the kitchen and dining room area. He learned to be calm here first. I remember watching movies on the sofa in the living room and periodically walking over to reinforce Rio for lying on his bed calmly while we were on the other side of the fence (in plain view) watching movies. Sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to pay much attention to what we were watching because I kept looking over for moments to reinforce. Every time we let Rio out of the fenced area into the living room he would get a bit nutty. He would want to play or rub his muzzle all over the floor excitedly. Gradually I started letting him out in that room for longer periods of time and looking for times to reinforce calmness in this new area.

This is what you want, right? Pup on the floor.

As another example of using confinement to calm Rio, on his first camping trip with us (perhaps a bit too early, or a bit too long), we needed to use time in the car to keep him under control. Rio could not be calm hanging out with us by the fire. He needed to keep busy. I could keep him busy easily enough for awhile, giving him food puzzles, tossing treats in the grass for him to sniff out, giving him chews. After some time, I ran out of things to give him and I ran out of attention. I wanted to be able to relax a little on this trip as well. Rio busied himself, but not with things that I deemed acceptable. He would dig holes under the picnic table. He would bark at the neighboring campers and their (much better behaved) dog. This was after a long hike and a bit of playtime with the neighbor dog. It was too much. We didn’t have a travel crate for him at the time, an investment well worth it – we use this all the time when traveling now and Rio loves it, it is his safe place away from home. When I couldn’t handle him anymore, for lack of anything better, we put him in the car. It was cold and we made him a little bed with a sleeping bag inside the car and made sure he was comfortable. It worked wonders, he calmed right down and went to sleep. He was probably exhausted and needed the rest. Ever since the car has been an easy way to calm the pup. Take him for a ride and he will probably fall asleep in the backseat, at least if it is a long ride and he doesn’t expect to be taken to the park, in which case he will peer out the window eagerly.


Some things to learn from this: The slow progression of calmness, and the regression when novel and/or stressful things happen in our environments. How do we reinforce calmness in ourselves? It must be a progressive and iterative process as it is with pup. And we might expect ourselves to regress when we encounter changes in our lives – new jobs, relationship struggles, moves. We must be good to ourselves as well as our pups. Perhaps the first step is just to start noticing calmness in ourselves when it happens. Oftentimes we ignore our pups until they are getting into trouble. Sometimes we ignore ourselves until our systems are screaming at us to listen – illness, breakdowns, emotional overwhelm. I am suggesting we pay attention to our little moments of stillness as we catch the first rays of the morning with our pups or as we listen to their deep sighing as we all settle in for the night. When are you calm? When can you catch your own self in a moment of peace? Noticing can be our first reinforcement as peace is self-reinforcing.

Take a deep breath. Find your peace.

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