There's a place for us
Do you have a spot you gravitate to in your house when you’re not doing anything? Some place you can sit and not be in the way of anyone else’s activities, where you can be comfortable and relax? Is there a particular end of the couch that is ‘your spot’ that you gravitate towards when not doing anything else?
Congrats, you’ve got a place command for yourself!
Teaching a place command to your dog is a fantastic building block towards having a calm, relaxed companion around the house. In addition to being practical for keeping a dog out of your way while you don’t want him underfoot, place helps a dog learn that he can relax and be present with you, without having to be constantly interacting or bored. Many people with active, high energy teenaged dogs struggle with calmness in the house- unless their dog is completely physically exhausted, they are always on the lookout for the next exciting thing- another walk, a game, something to chew on or play chase with. Teaching a place behavior and then rewarding the dog for performing it with chews, calm attention, and treats is a good intermediate step towards generalized calm behavior in the house.
If a dog’s crate is their ‘bedroom’ where they can go to have a break from the rest of the family, ‘place, is their favorite spot to hang out in the living room. Kids should be asked not to play with your dog while they're in that spot, but that delivering treats or relaxed toys (chew bones, Kongs, etc) are fair game, as is petting. Encouraging your dog to hang out in their designated spot for chew time is also a great way to build positive associations with it. While you’re actually teaching the behavior (ie, during a training session or practice) it’s not necessary to keep it stocked with chews, but building the habit simply through asking your dog to down on that bed in the corner before you hand him/her their Kong for the day is great behavioral conditioning.
Step 1: Pick a place
While you’re teaching, it’s easiest to use a bed or mat that you can move around. While your dog is still learning, you can put that bed wherever you need them to be.
It’s important to know that ‘place’ isn’t a stay. Your dog is welcome to change positions, move around in place, stand up and rearrange the pillows, or anything like that- but their job is to chill and hang out in a fairly closely defined area. Napping is encouraged, and if your dog sleeps through you moving around or even leaving the room, great! (If, after you’ve taught place, your dog tends to be crouched on their bed basically vibrating with eagerness for you to release him for a new, exciting game, there’s still some work to do to help him understand the point of the exercise.) Teaching place is a little bit confusing for some people, because while we teach a very narrowly defined behavior (go to this spot, lie down there until released), once we’re actually using it every day, the dog will be rewarded more generally.
To summarize - Pick a spot near where you spend a lot of time, where your dog will be out of the way of foot traffic, but close enough that you can reward them easily. The place should be comfortable for the dog. For teaching purposes, though, we’re going to use a mat or bed that we can put wherever we’re training.
Step 2: Teaching the behavior
Session 1 You will need a bed (or mat, or towel- these instructions will say bed just to keep it simple), and a small handful of small but delicious treats. For most dogs, the ideal training treat is lentil to pea sized, and highly stinky. Remember that a behavior the dog is learning doesn’t have to be perfect to earn a treat- the idea is to improve over time. Most dogs will be the most enthusiastic about training with tiny treats provided very frequently than larger treats doled out more slowly. A single handful of pea-sized treats will usually result in 25-30 treats, which should take you about 5-10 minutes to dole out if you’re treating fast enough to keep the dog really enthusiastic. Stopping when you run out of treats (before the dog gets bored, frustrated, or too full) can help you keep your dog interested and focused during your session.
Put the dog bed on the ground and act interested in it. Most dogs will come investigate because, but hiding a treat or two in or under the bed can be a good way to get shy dogs involved. Click and treat for any interest in the bed and then for touching it.
As long as your dog continues interacting with the mat, keep treating. Place the treats on the bed after each click (dropping is okay too, if you can be accurate) so they’re encouraged to keep staying on it. Whenever they move away from the bed, all treats stop.
Your dog will probably hang around on the mat, looking for more treats. (if he ran off to do something else, you probably need to have a shorter interval between the treats, or better treats- take a break and start again from step 1 later.) Ask him/her for a down on the mat, and treat them for that. It can help to ‘reset’ them between repetitions by occasionally tossing the treat so that they have to stand up to get it. As long as you’ve been treating at the mat, he’ll probably come right back to try and get another.
For most dogs, this is a good stopping place for your first session working on it, and it shouldn’t have needed very long at all- generally between 5-10 minutes. Let your dog’s brain cool down and process for at least a few hours before you come back and work on this again. Pick up the bed and put it out of the way until you’re ready to train again.
Start by putting the bed back on the ground where your dog can access it. Almost all dogs will enthusiastically hop right on it, although they may need to be prompted for the down position. Reward it, and continue onward! If your dog seems unsure, though, don’t be afraid to back up a step or two and reward just for any sort of interaction with the bed.
After a few reps of this, start pausing before you ask them to down. Don’t be impatient- just freeze and let them think about what has been earning the treat before. Count to 20 in your head before cuing the down, and see if your dog tries offering the down on his own. If they don't, that’s okay, just back up and keep cueing them until they are thrilled to down as soon as they’re feet touch the bed so they can get another treat.
Once they are happily scooping up a treat and running back to the mat and laying down without a cue, it’s time to name the behavior. You can call it anything you want- place, park it, go to your bed, chill out- are all cues I’ve heard or used. When your dog’s foot touches the mat and they’re just about to lay down, say the cue. After they’re laying down, treat and release as in the previous steps. Don’t say the cue unless you’re SURE your dog is going to do the behavior. (Jean Donaldson, one of the Big Three of positive dog training, uses the $50 test- don’t say the cue unless you’re certain enough that you’d bet $50 your dog will do the behavior RIGHT THEN.)
For most dogs, this is a good stopping point for session 2, and for slower or more timid dogs, it may take three sessions. (If your dog is uncertain and needs more treats and repetitions to move through a certain step, that’s okay! But resist making sessions longer, and instead just do an extra session or two in between steps. Most dogs are not good at focusing for long periods of time, and a dog who is uncertain needs shorter sessions where they can be more successful, not longer ones where he may get more frustrated or confused.)
Once your dog has the basic idea (I go to bed, I lay down on bed, human gives treats!), each additional session can be very short- mine are usually 2-3 minutes. Practice in different places, standing or sitting at different angles to the bed, and slowly introduce a variety of different rewards- lower value treats, occasionally higher value treats, and rewards like praise or petting that are usually lower value to your dog but may be okay in a relaxed context.
Step 3: Level it up!
Once your dog is fluent (knows and understands the behavior, including doing it when cued or NOT doing it when NOT cued), it’s time to level the behavior up. Continue to practice, but increase the difficulty with every session. Individual reps- and there may only be one or two per session) should vary in difficulty, though- if you constantly increase the difficulty without ever throwing the occasional easy repetition in there, your dog may become frustrated that their effort is only rewarded with a request for MORE effort.
A few ideas for increasing the difficulty slowly:
Change your position- if you were sitting on the ground next to the bed, try standing up. Were you standing up? Sit down.
Take 2 medium steps (a total of about 3’ from your starting position) in any direction away from the bed. If he’s successful, try again with a different distance. What about on the other side of the coffee table? Just around the corner into the kitchen? At the other end of the room? Across the house?
Play a video with sound on your phone that makes a mildly interesting (to dogs) noise such as farm animals or jingle bells. You can up the difficulty of distraction by using noises like a squeaky noise or a cat, or other dogs barking. Again - mix it up- don’t JUST increase the difficulty every time, but mix up slightly harder and easier repetitions.) With a lot of behaviors, increasing the distraction level would include using exciting things like a toy in your hand or ball rolled across the floor, but for a calm behavior like this, that kind of distraction is unfair and somewhat counterproductive.
Remember to continue rewarding intermittently, even when the difficulty is getting harder. Your dog should be successful with at least 8 out of every 10 practice repetitions, and if they’re having trouble with more than that, the difficulty is being increased too fast.