Teaching your dog to “go to mat” is one of the easiest ways to solve an enormous range of typical puppy behaviors, ranging from jumping up on guests, to excessive barking (dogs don’t like to bark when they lie down), to helping dogs relax for their veterinary appointments. This behavior gives your dog a specific thing to do and focus on in the face of attractive alternatives.
Here’s an example. Your dog wants to jump on your guests as they enter the house and you do not want your dog to jump on your guests. Dog’s (and people!) don’t do well with directions that focus on what we don’t want – it leaves too many other possibilities. In this case, if you teach your dog not to jump on your guests, what are they going to do instead? Run madly around the house, barking non-stop? Run out the front door? Spin in circles? It’s hard to say what your dog might choose to do, but most dogs don’t substitute one “arousal” behavior (jumping up) for a calm one (for example, sitting politely), unless they’ve been trained in a specific alternative. A “go to mat” cue is an example of a specific alternative.
Instead of asking yourself what you don’t want (I don’t want my dog jumping on guests) ask yourself what you do want (I want my dog to wait on a mat 20 feet from the front door when I open it, and to stay there until my guest is settled in the house). Excellent! Now train that alternative.
The following video shows the process of teaching a dog to go to a mat. The basic method is simple; reward your dog for going to the place that you have selected (a bathmat, dog bed, rug, or a well loved open crate are all possibilities), and teach your dog to stay there until released.
If I had to provide a list of ten REALLY useful behaviors to create a dog with excellent manners, this would be right up there! Give it a try; you may love what you see.
Pet Dog Trainer Challenge:
If you teach “go to mat” in your classes, consider helping your students learn to put it on cue with a “doorbell” sound. Bring a small, portable bell to class. Have your students lay out their mats, and then ring the doorbell, which should cue your students to send their dogs to go to mat. How long before the dogs associate the bell with the cue? For homework, encourage your students to practice with their own doorbells.
For additional challenge, have some dogs practice recalls off of their mats while other dogs are rewarded for staying under distraction!