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What’s all this fuss about Mat Training?

Updated: May 17, 2021

What is Mat Training, and is it something you need to do for your dog? Well that depends on where you want to take your pooch and how well behaved they need to be when you do! Check out our strategy for training our new pup - Whisky the Wonderpup and a subtle extra training for his big Bro Cebar - who is already a well mannered gentleman! Think Harry and Eggsy - from "Kingsman" and that's my boys!

My hubby, Vince, and I love to travel, especially overseas, and although Covid 19 has put a big fat stop to that for everyone - one of the startling things we found when we could travel, was how welcome dogs are in all sorts of venues in Europe and the UK. People there love their dogs so much that they virtually take them everywhere with them, and the community councils and retailers have accommodated and even welcomed this. I am happy to say I can see the emergence of similar opportunities for “pet friendly” outings here in Australia, with dogs welcome at places like Bunnings, cafes and restaurants.

Taking our Fur Babies out in public, visiting friends and family or to these accommodating retailers and places can be a bit of a challenge if your pooch has not yet mastered its social manners. For the sake of everyone involved: other people, yourself and of course your perfect pooch, they need to be under good control, well behaved and reliable. We have started taking Whisky and Cebar to the local dog obedience club, Joondalup Dog Training Club, and one of their very useful suggestions, and something we are now working on, is to “Mat Train” our Fur Babies. In the end it will mean we can take them ANYWHERE and know that they can stay on their mats, safe and sound and well behaved if and when required!

The idea is to teach it as a “game” for them to go to a special mat/bed and lie down. Cebar is already ahead of the pack in that he will already go to his actual bed on command (ON YOUR BED) and has done for years (he’s 9 years old now) but for Whisky (who in all honesty, is the one highly likely to wreck havoc due to his serious energy, curiosity and speediness!) this is a totally new "game" he is learning.

Whisky and his Shadow!!!

To make it clearer for him, we have purchased two outdoor waterproof mats/beds (our “special training mats”) that we are using for the training and these will become the targets for the command (GO TO YOUR MAT), and will be the ones we take in the car with us when we got out to other places. That way it delineates between their actual beds where they can come and go as they please, play and sleep, and the “mat” which is a place to lay down and wait until they are given permission get off - so not their choice, our choice.

We have them stored away out of sight and only bring them out during our brief 5-10 minute training sessions throughout the day. We are starting by putting them in the lounge/family area where Whisky already feels comfortable, happy and safe. We set him up for success by temporarily packing away his toys and other potential distractions so he can concentrate on the GO TO YOUR MAT game and his special mat. I regularly cook up a batch of their favourite treats and freeze them (as they have tuna in) and break them into very small pieces as rewards, so that he doesn’t get too full too quickly and stop working. You can use any treats that your pup goes mad for, but as I also have Cebar’s pancreatitis to consider I avoid anything fatty such as cheese, sausage or liver and make my own healthy treats for them both, but you can use commercial treats if you prefer. It just needs to be small, quickly eaten and something your Fur Baby looooooves!

The training is an incremental process, starting off by standing very close to the special mat with the puppy (on lead if needed), and rewarding him immediately when he goes near it or even puts just one paw on it! The idea is that this new special mat is DISNEYLAND for treats! You are not giving him any other commands such as sit, or down at this point, you are just encouraging him to get on the mat. Positive reinforcement and consistency builds the behaviour you want, the more he is rewarded for getting on the mat - the more he will go there. Doing this each day for 5 -10 minutes, over a few weeks will give you the success you want. You will know he is ready for the next training stage when see him getting so excited when his special mat is being brought out - before you even start any training with him.

Once your Fur Baby has reliably and consistently got the idea of the "GO TO YOUR MAT" game, you will need a longer lead (if you are still using a lead). You want to first check that he still understands the previous stage, so start off by rewarding him for getting on the mat whilst you are next to it (just as before) and once he has done this a few times, call him off the mat and move it about a ruler length in front of you. This increased distance will challenge him to still get on it even though it’s further away, and big reward if he does! If not, bring it a back to being next to you and very, very slowly move it just incremental baby steps away and STOP when he starts to fail. You want him to have success and always end on fun with a treat. Once your Fur Baby is successful at around 30cm distance, you can keep on gradually increasing the distance but be careful not to progress too quickly that he becomes discouraged or fails. Always make it fun and end on success, even if it means bringing the mat closer to you again. You are still not asking them to sit or go down on the mat - if they do so on their own, all good, but we are not confusing them with extra commands just yet. Just standing on the mat is enough for success!

When you feel your Fur Baby has mastered being on the mat further away from you (say at around a couple of metres distance), it’s time to move to the next stage of training. Start with a recap getting them to "GO TO YOUR MAT" but you standing next to it, to warm them up and after a few times, give them the command DOWN (obviously you need to have taught this command separately). If he complied reward him. If not, call him off the mat and try again rather than just repeating the DOWN command over and over. Do this over a few days until your Fur Baby gets on the mat and lies down when it’s close to you consistently. When this happens you can again start to move the mat incrementally further away from you, with him laying down on command. After you have repeated this enough times over and over, you will see that your Fur Baby will head for the mat and lay down automatically waiting on his treat. When this happens you can then start the next stage of the training where you being to lengthen the time he stays on the mat before you call him off.

Your Fur Baby loves you and wants to be close to you so lengthening the time they are on the mat laying down can be a bit stressful for them, so go back to standing close to the mat to start off with. Reward him for initially going to the mat and laying down, then after about 1-2 seconds, reward him again for staying there. Call him off and then when he gets back on repeat, as before, but wait a little longer 2-3 seconds. Call him off again and when he gets back on wait 3-4 seconds….you get the idea….continue to increase the time he stays in the down position on the mat before giving the second reward. If he breaks and gets off before then, don’t scold him, he’s only a baby learning and this is a game, so it should be FUN. But do withhold that second reward - he hasn’t earned it! Let him get back on and try again, even if you go back to a shorter length of time in the down, so that you can reward him and end the training session on a successful and positive note - and he gets his treat!

This kind of training takes time and patience, and you my find it can be 3 or 4 months before your dog will go to the mat, lay down and stay there until you give permission for him to get off. But when does you can start to move the mat into different locations around the house. If they regress, simply go back to that part of the training, in the new location in the house and go from there before moving onto a different location. When they are ready for this I plan to start in the kitchen - as it can help stop your Fur Baby being underfoot whilst you are preparing food or cooking. My two gang-up together in the kitchen and it can be challenging for me not to stand on a paw, tail or risk tripping over one of them!

If at any point your Fur Baby starts to break, it means you are going too fast for them - so go back a stage and make it easy for them to succeed, have fun and get that all important treat! Keep training sessions short and sharp so they don’t get fatigued, or too full of treats, and start making mistakes. Remember to always give them permission for them to get off the mat, I have a release word (OKAY, some people use FREE) and shower them with verbal praise, cuddles or a game with a favourite toy to finish off the fun!

The last stage is to work on your Fur Baby being able to stay on their mat with distractions around, it’s called “proofing”. This is so you can take them literally anywhere and know they will stay put until you give permission for them to get off.

To set your Fur Baby up for success you need to understand your dog and what distracts them and what doesn’t. You will probably need a helper for this part of the training. Start with something that is a very low level distraction or your dog. It could be food, a toy or a person. The trick is to find things that offer a range of intensity for your dog. Once you have figured out the low level item, give your Fur Baby the "GO TO YOUR MAT" command and then have the distraction at a distance from them, say 5-6 metres. If they stay on the mat, reward them, if they break and get off, simply don’t give them the reward treat, and if using food or a toy as a distraction have the person helping quickly grab it before your Fur Baby does - we want to avoid any kind of unintended reward. However, if they are successful is staying put, then you give them the a treat and can start to slowly and incrementally move the distraction closer to them and when they master that, you can then start incrementally increasing the intensity of the distractions (each time starting at a distance and moving closer). Depending on where you want to take your Fur Baby, you could include the types of distractions they are likely to encounter in those new environments, eg visitors to your home, young noisy children, outside in the garden with cars passing etc.

When you are comfortable with how they are progressing you can take the special mat out to visit friends and family, the local park etc, working up to more and more public places where good behaviour is essential - such as a cafe. The aim is to expose them to different types of environments with new people, strange noises, smells and other distractions.

Be prepared that each situation will be a new challenge for your pooch and you may have to go back a few stages and repeat things. It’s not the end of the world if they fail sometimes, they just don’t get the reward treat and need a bit more practice, keep the sessions short to start with and you can built up the duration they stay on their mat over time.

We still have a long road ahead in this journey … but we’d love some company on it…..let me know how your mat training is going with your pooch!

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