Teaching your dog how to go to a designated spot, like a bed or a mat, and stay there until released is one of the most useful skills that he can learn. It’s a great way to ask your dog to stay out from underfoot and can be used in a wide variety of situations, like when you’re eating dinner, greeting guests at the front door, going to the vet, going on an outing to a coffee shop, the list can go on for miles. Have an excitable dog? This behaviour can be used to teach him how to settle and relax, regardless of what is happening around him. Have a fearful or anxious dog? The mat can become his “safe spot” where strange people and dogs are not allowed to bother him. Once your dog has mastered this skill, you can bring the mat with you pretty much anywhere to help your dog stay calm and focused on you.
How to Train Go to the Mat
The goal of this behaviour is to teach the dog to find the mat from several feet away, get all 4 feet on it, lie down, and then stay there until released. That is a lot to ask all at once, so it’s easiest to break this behaviour down into several different components.
Finding the Mat
The first step in teaching Go to the Mat is to teach your dog to find the mat with his feet. This sounds easy, but it can be the trickiest part of the behaviour for many owners to teach. Before you begin, make sure that your supplies are organised for easy access. You will need: your dog’s favourite treats, a clicker, and a mat/towel/blanket (it can be anything that travels easily). Find a quiet location to begin with – you don’t want to have to compete for your dog’s attention when you first start training any behaviour.
Start by fluffing the mat out on the floor in front of your dog. Click for any interaction with the mat (looking at it, moving towards it, sniffing it, stepping on it, etc.). Drop the treats onto the mat. You want the dog’s focus to be down and on this new object that he’s interacting with. Continue dropping treats for about 5 seconds, and then release your dog away from the mat by saying “ok” and tossing a treat away for him to chase. Be ready to click and start dropping treats as soon as your dog comes back to check out the mat again. When your dog is coming back to the mat and getting all 4 feet onto the mat every time, you are ready to move on to the next step.
Lying Down on the Mat
Let your dog find the mat and then reward him once he gets all four feet on it. While he’s on the mat, crouch down in front of him and stare at the floor. You can use a treat to lure him into a down position the first couple of times, but try to wait for him to figure it out on his own. As soon as he lies down, click and then drop a treat on the ground in between his front paws. When your dog is lying down quickly and consistently while you are crouching on the floor in front of him, gradually move your body into a standing position.
Adding the Cue
Once your dog is reliably finding the mat and then immediately lying down once he gets there, you’re ready to put this behaviour on cue. When you are naming any behaviour for your dog, you are going to say your cue while the dog is performing the behaviour.
Fluff the mat out on the floor in front of your dog. As soon as he starts to move onto the mat, say “go to the mat” and then click and drop a treat once he lays all the way down (belly and elbows touching the ground!). Repeat this game several times a day and in different locations to ensure that your dog will generalise this cue.
If you are having trouble with anything in the training process, find a professional trainer in your area that specialises in positive reinforcement to help you get your dog up to speed. With a little practice, most dogs figure out this game and learn the cue very quickly. Once your dog understands Go to the Mat at home, you are ready to take in on the road and enjoy lots of fun, peaceful outings with him!