Updated: 6 days ago
I admit it. I used to be a mat training skeptic. “Why use a mat when you can just train a good stay?” was my line of thinking. But then I started training my dog Whimsy to settle on a mat since we were going to libraries and schools to do presentations, and I understood just how fantastic and useful dog mat training can be!
While training a dog to go to their mat and remain there is extremely similar to training a dog to stay until released, the use of the mat has a lot of benefits over training a stay without a mat.
For one thing, because you have a specific targeted surface, it does seem easier for the dog to understand the concept of lying down and not moving. This in turn makes it easier for the average person who doesn't have a lot of training in their background to teach the dog to remain on the mat.
For another thing, if you use a mat, you're actually employing the scientific principle of classical conditioning. Pavlov used classical conditioning to pair a bell with salivation. We can use the same principle to get the dog to associate the mat with relaxation. So not only are you teaching a behavior, but you can eventually condition the dog to go into a state of relaxation and calm when laying on the mat.
Why mat training dogs can be useful
But what good is teaching a dog to go lie down on their mat? That was what I used to ask, and it turns out there are many uses for it!
Teach self-control For one thing you can use it as a self-control training exercise which is useful for especially impulsive, young dogs. Because the mat becomes a targeted space, the presence of the mat signals the dog specifically what you’ll be working on with them in a training session. Dogs do better when expectations are clear and they don’t have to guess.
Teach relax on cue I mentioned classical conditioning getting your dog to associate the mat with feelings of calm and relaxation. If your dog is a bit overly wound up, you can bring out the mat for a short time to help them calm down.
Place to chew You want to give your dog a stuffed Kong or Bully Stick, but don’t want a mess on your rug or carpeting. If you get your dog’s mat out you can confine the mess to the mat, which can easily be laundered!
Keep out of the way during meal prep Do you have a dog that counter surfs when you’re trying to make dinner? Or maybe you’re tripping over your dog as you’re carrying a dish to the oven. Get the mat out and place it where your dog can watch you, but is out of your way.
Eating at outdoor restaurants Wouldn’t it be nice to sit out on the patio at a restaurant and be able to take your dog with you without being embarrassed by their behavior? Once mat trained you could bring their mat, place it under the table out of the way and have your dog chill while you enjoy your meal. And because you aren’t heartless you may be inclined to drop some small pieces of food from your plate to your dog to reward that good behavior.
Public transit If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that allows uncrated dogs on public transportation, you can amaze your fellow passengers with your well-behaved dog traveling quietly on their mat at your feet.
Guests Do you cringe at the idea of your dog jumping up on your guests and trying to steal the appetizers you’ve spent so much time putting together? Let your people friendly/social dog be a part of the visit without ruining it by asking them to lie on their mat.
Comfort at vets Most dogs don’t enjoy a visit to the vet, but you can make it a less stressful experience by bringing their mat along. Use the mat in the waiting room to help them relax. Use it again on the exam table to minimize stress and allow them a comfortable place while being examined. By this time your dog will love their mat so much it will be like a small child finding comfort in a security blanket.
Choosing the right mat
There are a couple of things you should know about mat training before you get started.
First of all, the mat you initially use when training your dog to “go to mat” makes a difference. Later on you will probably be able to use just about anything, but to begin you’ll want to make it as easy for your dog as possible.
Remember that dogs don’t see things the same way we do. You want the mat to be as visible and noticeable to your dog as possible. Color and thickness are the main things to consider. If the mat is the same color tone as the floor it may blend in too much. And making sure it’s not flush against the floor can help as well.
You should also ensure your mat won’t slip when your dog steps onto it. When you first start out your dog may gently step onto it and this may not be a problem, but later on as your dog becomes more enthusiastic, they’re going to throw themselves onto the mat. You don’t want the mat to slip out from under your dog and scare them, changing their perception of the map from loving it to being afraid of it. I would highly recommend that you look into I’m out with rubber backing, such as a bath mat.
If you’re working with a puppy that is going to continue to grow, consider the size of the mat that is going to be best for a full-grown dog. You don’t want your puppy to completely fit on the mat now, only to outgrow it within a few months. The size of the mat should be able to accommodate the entire body of your dog when they are in a down.
Now that you have your mat, the next part of training involves lots of really tasty treats. If you have a dog who is over the moon about food and thinks anything edible is amazing, you can get away with using part of their meal. If you have a picky eater you may want to use something better than their regular food.
You also want to decide what your criteria is going to be with the mat. As a targeted area you can require that your dog’s entire body, including all four feet, are on top of the mat. You can also decide that as long as a part of their body is touching the mat that’s good enough.
Whatever you decide, make sure you’re consistent in your expectations so that you don’t confuse your dog.
The mat should also be used as a tool that comes out when it’s needed, rather than an area where your dog lounges on a regular basis. This will help your dog understand the consistency of going on the mat when asked and only leaving when released. It will also increase the love that your dog has for the mat, since it isn’t available to them at all times.
How to mat train a dog
Now finally you are ready to start mat training your dog!
Step one: Teach your dog to LOVE the mat!
Work with your dog in a room without any distractions. Place the mat on the floor and if your dog shows any interest in the mat, immediately place several pieces of food on top of the mat. (Be generous with the food - we're trying to make the dog LOVE the mat. I will typically use 2-5 pieces each time.) Placing the food on the mat itself rather than handing it to the dog immediately places more importance on the mat rather than on you.
Continue to pay attention to your dog and if your dog remains on the mat, keep feeding your dog treats on the mat as long as they remain there. If your dog wanders off the mat wait a few moments to see if your dog shows any interest in the mat again. As soon as they do that, you’re going to place more treats on the mat.
If you wait a minute or two and your dog wanders off to do something else, you can put some treats under their nose and lure them over to the mat. You don’t want to do this too often or you’ll get into a pattern where you continually have to entice your dog to the mat. Our goal with this step is to teach your dog that the mat is the best thing ever, and make them want to engage with it.
If your dog thinks that the mat is a fun toy and tries to pick it up and plays with it, get your dog to drop the mat by sprinkling a few treats on the floor. While your dog is busy eating the treats scattered on the floor, pick up the mat and place it a few feet away, and soon as your dog is done eating the scattered treats, get your dog to get on the mat and rapidly place a treat on the mat while they’re standing on it. In this way we are trying to teach the dog that the mat is for standing sitting or lying down on, not for playing with.
At the point when your dog is reluctant to leave the mat, you know you are ready for the next step.
Step 2: Teach your dog to lie down on the mat
If your dog has already started to lie down on the mat, reinforce that particular behavior by placing treats on the floor between your dog’s paws. I like placing treats there instead of handing it to the dog because it helps keep the dog's focus on the ground.
If your dog doesn’t automatically lie down, you can ask for a down if they know it, otherwise put a treat underneath their nose and slowly lower your hand down to the floor right in front of their paws. Many times luring in this way is the best way to get a dog into a down position.
As long as your dog is in a down on the mat keep the treats coming. You’ll have to play around with the time between treat delivery. With an energetic ADHD type dog treat delivery will have to happen a lot more frequently than a laid-back calm dog. Your goal is to reinforce the down in such a way that the dog maintains it for a period of time.
Once you can place the mat on the floor, and your dog immediately goes to it and lies down, you know that you’re ready for the next step.
Step 3: Start to teach your dog to remain on the mat
Now you can start working on getting your dog to remain there no matter what. Add in some movement on your part, so take a few steps to the side, if your dog is still in a down on the mat you’re going to put treats on the floor between the paws. Take a few steps backwards, and come back and place a few treats on the floor between the paws if your dog is still there. If your dog gets up off the mat in response to your movement, do not chastise your dog. You have not yet added the requirement for your dog to stay on the mat for a particular length of time, so your dog has not yet made a mistake. Just take your dog back to the mat, and then whatever movement triggered your dog to get up, make it smaller. So instead of taking a two-step backwards movement, maybe it’s just a one-step movement. If your dog still cannot do it, then make that movement smaller yet. Our goal is always to make sure that your dog can be successful.
Once your dog is remaining on the mat through a small amount of movement on your part, you can go on to the next step.
Step 4: Teach your dog a release cue
At this point you can add your release cue. Some common release cues that people use are “OK”, “all done”, or “release”. You can use whatever you would like as long as you don’t use it in another training context.
Continue to practice movements with heavy reinforcement of treats between the paws, and after a few repetitions take a few steps backwards and use your release cue. If your dog doesn’t want to get up off the mat, congratulations you’ve successfully conditioned your dog to love it!
However, continue to encourage your dog to get up off the mat and come to you. When your dog does you can give them one treat, but then turn and look at the mat, and wait to see what your dog does.
Dogs tend to pay attention to our body language and where we are looking, and so if you look at the mat your dog is more likely to understand that you want them to return to it.
If your dog returns to the mat, joyfully go and reinforce your dog with several treats on the floor between the paws.
Once your dog immediately returns to the mat after coming to you on the release, you are ready to go on to the next step.
Step 5: Adding your go to mat cue
Choose some verbal cue that tells your dog to go to their mat. I simply say “mat”, but you might like to use something else as a cue such as “Settle”, “Go to Bed” or “Chillax”.
Do a few repetitions of reinforcing your dog for laying down in the mat, and then encouraging your dog to come off the mat with a release cue. When your dog is near you, look directly at the mat, and say your go to mat cue. Make sure you’re close enough that you are guaranteed that your dog will go to their mat. You don’t want to be so far away that your dog is confused and you end up ruining the new cue that you want to attach to the behavior.
When your dog goes to their mat, immediately go right up to the mat and give them a few treats between their paws and start to work on a little bit of duration. Back up, release your dog from the mat, and repeat. With enough repetitions your dog will learn the go to mat cue.
If your dog doesn’t go to their mat when you give the verbal cue, think about whether something has changed that may make it more difficult for your dog. Perhaps your distance is too far, or there are too many distractions. If this is the case find a way to make the next couple of repetitions easier so that you can make sure your dog is successful.
Step 6: increase your duration
Start increasing the amount of time your dog remains on the mat before you release them. Vary the duration, instead of increasing the amount of time with each successive repetition. This is also the point when you can vary how frequently you give them treats on the mat between their paws. So sometimes it might be a treat a second, sometimes there may be several seconds between treats.
Just a reminder that if your dog gets up before you’ve released, the next couple of repetitions should be easier to ensure your dog can be successful. Too many failed repetitions will result in a longer time making progress.
Step 7: Adding in distractions
When you add in distractions, you want to make everything else much easier. So, when you start to train the mat in a location different from the one you started in, you want to dial back your duration quite a bit. Just a new environment is a distraction in and of itself. I would begin with a duration of just a few seconds and work your way up from there.
What you will find is that even though you're starting at a few seconds at the new location, you'll be able to quickly build up your duration since your dog already learned it the mat work in a previous location.
Next steps in mat training your dog
New distractions should be added in one at a time. so don't go to a new location with a bunch of kids running around and screaming for your first time in a new environment. Your first new environment should be fairly low in distractions so that your dog can learn that mat work applies in any location.
Other distractions would include other people, your body position (so in other words you might be sitting standing kneeling etcetera), noises, and just about anything else you can think of.
Dr. Karen Overall has a relaxation protocol that wasn't developed specifically for mat work, but applies really well as a way to work in distractions. Additionally it has a task sheet that breaks down different ways that you can help your dog relax during a variety of different actions. If you're not sure how to go about proofing mat training, I would highly recommend you take a look at the relaxation protocol and specifically at the task sheet.
You may have noticed that I don't indicate that you should tell your dog “stay” in any of the steps outlined above. The reason for this is that if you tell your dog to get on the mat, the expectation is that your dog will remain there until they are released. Always make sure you're releasing your dog before the situation makes it too difficult for your dog to be able to remain there.
It might be tempting to use the mat when you're working on your stay training. I would highly encourage you to not rely on the mat for this, as it's extremely probable that your dog would be unable to stay unless they had their mat.
The other thing I like to caution people about is not to use the mat too often. It really can be magical how wonderful dogs behave when mat training is done successfully. But dogs are dogs and they need to be able to perform dog like behaviors. The expectation that the dog will remain on the mat and be calm throughout much of the day is not humane treatment, and is unrealistic.
I know there are a lot of steps to go through in order to train your dog to go on and stay on their mat. But most dogs take to this pretty easily, and a with just a few minutes of practice a day you'll find you make very quick progress.
So go get a mat, spend some time training it, and enjoy using it in a lot of different situations!