Mat work has become popular among the dog training minded in the last decade or so. With those who do dog sports, using a mat to train is almost required because it is so helpful in teaching many different things, especially if a dog is having issues with certain behaviours or situations. For clarification a mat is not your dog’s bed. It is a training tool for you to use when you need to “explain” something to your dog.
For people who have dogs at home and don’t plan on doing any dogs sports, using a mat to train is more often ignored as a useful training tool and sometimes outrightly balked at.
Why is this?
The reason for this could be one of several things. A mat is inconvenient. You have to carry it with you and make sure you have it if you are training away from home. It can be cumbersome. You will likely need an extra space for it or something to carry it in. Many people want the dog to stay without a mat so don’t want to use one, or they think it’s silly or for lousy trainers. I’ve heard many reasons for not wanting to use one, even from paid clients, who know that what we are doing is working, but they still stall at the mat.
Why use one?
Many obedience competitors use a platform for stays and position change, but platforms are impractical for the non- competitor with a dog when working on behaviour issues in the home, working to prevent them or just general training. Mats are just more useful in these situations and can be applied to pretty much anything you need to teach your dog.
A mat provides a comfortable space
Teaching a dog to stay in one place without a mat is usually a bit more challenging. The reason is that the absence of a mat does not give clear parameters to the dog. A mat delineates a specific spot for the dog to stay on and is very clear about it, so to speak. The mat will help the dog understand that movement will not be rewarding. It does pretty much the same idea as using a platform to train.
Portable, convenient training
A mat is portable. A platform is not really as convenient to move. This is the quality I like best in mats – you can take a mat anywhere, and use it to train your dog, especially when you are still working in different environments. It can be made smaller (folded) and carried easily. It doesn’t have to be elaborate.
Make the mat a dog magnet
It is easy to train a dog to love the mat. Simply bring out a mat that your dog has never seen before – the one you will use for your dog – and put it down in a convenient place. Your dog will likely want to check it out. When he does, throw food rewards, one at a time onto the mat as he eats them, thus keeping him on the mat. Say nothing to your dog.
At some point your dog will leave the mat. Say nothing. Wait. Reward any movement towards, near or with the mat. Use “fast food” – several pieces of food in a row, one at a time if your dog is on the mat. Let your dog figure out what gets the rewards. Don’t lure him or coax him onto the mat. After a short while, remove the mat and stop rewarding. Do this again in a later session. When you bring out the mat, put it on the floor and your dog goes directly to it, you have a magnet mat. Make sure to reward this behaviour with fast food (several pieces of food given one at a time in a row).
Add a cue
It is at this point you can add a release cue from the mat. You won’t need a cue to get on the mat because your dog is already going to go straight there when it is out.
Release cues make it easy for you to get your dog off the mat to do something else. I use “done” as my release cue. You can use whatever you like and is easy for you to say and remember. To release your dog from the mat, say your release word and throw a piece of food away from the mat. Make sure you say your cue and then throw the food. Your dog must learn that it means something – to get off the mat.
Your dog should immediately return to the mat. When he does give fast food again and then release him from the mat. Over time you can stretch out the number pieces of food you give while your dog is on the mat. This will lengthen the time that he stays on the mat. The mat will become so rewarding (and relaxing) for your dog that he will prefer it to other behaviours.
How can I use the mat?
Mat work is important for helping dogs become comfortable in strange places. When your dog likes being on the mat it brings a sense of comfort and stability to the dog. You can use a mat in any location you bring your dog to, to help him relax, a security blanket of sorts. You won’t always have to use it necessarily, but if it works for you particular dog and situation, you can.
A mat can also help dogs who are worried about doing certain activities. If a dog has had a negative experience doing a particular behaviour, for example doing normal down/stays, a mat can help “re-frame” the behaviour so the dog sees it as different. This allows the dog to work on the behaviour of down/stay without feeling like it is the same behaviour he had a bad experience with (mostly meaning the dog was harshly corrected for moving and is now afraid to do a down).
I have started working with my Kuvasz, Ira, on a mat. We are doing relaxing work on the mat which includes massage for Ira. The intent is to have a training session following this in order to start out with the best mindset possible – for both Ira and myself. Ira tends to alert regularly during training sessions to almost any noise and certainly anything that moves. This lack of focus (on me and our training session) can make it difficult to get and hold his attention during the session even if we have done acclimation to the training area before hand.
We are using the information on mats I found in the book “Control Unleashed” by Leslie McDevitt .
Hopefully this information will give you something to think about with regards to the usefulness of training with a mat and help to improve the connection you have with your dog.
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