If there was a contest for “most under-valued tool in dog training”, I think this one would take the prize. Developed by Dr. Karen Overall, DVM, DACVB, this handbook is a series of step-by-step instructions that just about anyone with a dog can follow with ease. What it lacks in excitement, it more than makes up for in benefits, and has so many useful applications in training and behavior modification, it’s almost a sin that it’s given away for free.
So many of my dog training and behavior consulting cohorts have met my suggestion to use this little gem with wrinkled noses, sighs and snorts it’s downright infuriating. Too long, they say. Too many steps. My clients will never do it. But the very same folks will bemoan the “quick fix” attitude they seem to feel coming from their clients, and carry on about how “nobody wants to do any training anymore”. Oh, the irony of it.
As a tool for treating chronic stress, an underlying condition present in almost every anxious, fearful or aggressive dog, it’s really hard to beat this. The program involves basically training a lovely short-distance, short-duration sit-stay under a well-defined series of environmental distractions. All the dog has to do is sit quietly and be rewarded every few seconds while his person engages in what must seem like to him a strange ritual of bizarre behaviors. Used regularly, you will wind up with a dog who is less stressed, more relaxed, less impulsive and with a hugely improved attention span. The almost Zen-like sense you derive from practicing these maneuvers has therapeutic value for the human half of the training team as well, as you rhythmically perform the same quiet, thoughtful steps over and over again. Almost meditative in a lot of ways, and who couldn’t use more of that these days?
The protocol is broken down into a series of 15 “days”, and each day includes a series of 15 training steps that are completed in each session. If you take the protocol literally, then you must perform each of the steps in a session for each of 15 consecutive days. If you’d like to do that, more power to you. However, the “days” (in my view, anyway) can be taken about as literally as the days of creation in Genesis. In the absence of “relaxation protocol police” (and I’ve checked, and there aren’t any!) there’s nothing to say that if you have taken a particular shine to day 12, you can’t just do that one for a week or so. Or do just day 6, 8, and 14. Or skip day 3 all together because it doesn’t do anything for you. Rejecting the program altogether because it’s too long or too stringent is the same as saying your diet is gone out the window because you lost it and downed a stray cupcake.
So training and behavior people, give this another look. Keep your mind open and your thinking flexible and you just might be rewarded with some great outcomes.
From “Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals” by Dr. Karen Overall, DVM, DACVB, the Relaxation Protocol is a guide to helping dogs who are excessively stressed, anxious, fearful and may be helpful in many aggression cases. Please be sure to consult with a qualified behavior professional before selecting and/or attempting this or any other behavior modification program.