“I think we have a baby raccoon!” This was something I whispered often to myself during the first few weeks.
Yes – puppies are full of energy. They run and play until they drop – kerplop – into a deep sleep.
Except for Kit! She was like a race car. She went from 0 to 60 rapidly! And continued to wind up her motor until her gaskets blew up. She just didn’t know what to do with all her energy. She is a good-natured personality, but things would get ugly and fast.
In real terms, she contended with two issues. She was easily over-stimulated, and she was unable to self-settle. Some pups may have an innate ability to self-settle that can be reinforced with practice. That’s ideal! If they don’t have much ability to self-settle, there are methods that can help teach a dog to ‘chill’.
With my litters, I begin immediately with cradling each pup in my hands. Very young pups are stimulated when touched. How easily and quickly a pup settles gives clues to their temperament. Patterns become evident over time. When a pup settles while cupped in your hands, it will give a big yawn or sigh and sometimes a stretch before relaxing. This process also helps them to settle – even at this young age. We all know how good it feels after a strenuous day to fall into bed and allow our bodies and minds to unwind. Settling feels good to a dog, too. It’s tough on a dog who can’t self-settle.
As a pup matures, the ability to self-settle helps them focus on their training. Since they are not overwhelmed with over-stimulation, they can think about their lessons.
There are several steps to teaching a dog to settle. We help them discover that calming feeling when their minds and muscles relax. The first approach is to have the pup or dog stand or sit next to you and place the outstretched palms of your hands gently and firmly on the sides of their shoulders. Firmly and supportively – this is not punishment or control! The moment they show a relaxing signal like yawning or licking their lips, release your touch, allowing them to soak up that nice feeling – saying nothing. Eventually, you will move your hands for a bit of a massage, still using the palms of your hands and a slow firm touch. This isn’t petting. This is closer to massaging although it isn’t quite that either. Think of ‘thunder-shirts’ that are used to settle and calm an anxious dog. The thunder-shirt exerts a firm, all-encompassing ‘cradle’ around the dog. Our hands can have a similar effect once the dog associates relaxation with our handling.
As the pup learns to accept this handling knowing that it helps them unwind, they welcome this. It may take awhile for some pups. It surely did with Kit! She was so easily over-stimulated that her mouth went into over-drive with any kind of touching. She wasn’t nasty. She quickly wound-up and grabbed onto whatever was close – very often one of our limbs! And – it was the smallest of things that sent her into wild and crazy land. The only way that she could settle was to be crated. Initially when she was crated as a pup, she flung herself around the crate until she flopped with a great sigh and fell to sleep. Generously sized areas only allowed her to work up a lather until she was beside herself with edginess.
I felt sorry for her. It was like she had too many cups of coffee – All. The. Time!
One often hears, “A tired dog is a good dog.”. While this is true, the more one exercises a dog, the more exercise the dog requires. Puppies also need to learn to take it easy. “A dog who is appropriately exercised and taught to settle is a good dog!”
Our play and train sessions were brief with frequent ‘Settle’ breaks. We incorporated the relaxation handling into our sessions, so she learned that touch could be calming. Each session would have focus games, an assortment of games preparing for future obedience cues and games that motivated her brain. Hiding toys and food in and outside the house was a favorite. She learned to ‘Wait’ while I hid the toys/treats. Waiting was really, really challenging for her but since she loved looking for these hidden treasures, she willingly learned this ‘impulse’ control’. Impulse control games were never ending for Kit whether waiting for treats, meals, entering/exiting doors and crates. Almost everything in her life was based on her learning to calmly focus and pause.
Kit and I practiced ‘Place’ – when the dog learns to lie down, not in a formal obedience down position, but in a relaxed down. If they chose to chew on a chew toy, that’s great. If they wish to snooze, that is great, too. ‘Place’ became our morning, noon and nightly training along with our play games and other activities. A rug was provided for her to lie and small treats dropped between her front paws, frequently at first and then on a variable schedule. Often enough so she expected a treat but not so often that she lost interest if a treat wasn’t dropping from heaven often.
As the weeks turned into months, she liked practicing her ‘Place’ behavior. When she began initiating ‘Place’ on her own, I knew she was learning to chose to settle. ‘Choosing to settle’! That was big!