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Veterinarian Technician October 2011 (Vol 32, No 10)

Inside Behavior: Go-to-Mat: A Life Skill Every Dog Should Have

by Sarah Owings, KPA-CTP

    There are many good reasons to teach puppies and dogs to go to a bed or mat on cue. This article (1) discusses some of the benefits of teaching this behavior using a marker signal (in this case, a clicker) followed by reinforcement and (2) provides a step-by-step guide for how to train it.


    Contacts in agility—an exercise in agility that requires a dog to touch yellow safety zones on the way up or down an obstacle

    Drop on recall—an advanced obedience exercise that requires a dog to assume a down position while returning to the handler after being called

    Operant conditioning—learning in which a stimulus elicits a response because the response produces a reward

    Send away—an advanced obedience exercise that requires a dog to run from the handler to a designated location and remain standing, sitting, or recumbent, as directed

    A Preventive Behavior

    Picture a young dog lying calmly on his bed. Now picture some of the things he could be doing instead: zooming around the house, nipping at people’s heels, leaping onto furniture, begging at the table, counter “surfing,” charging out the door, or jumping up on guests. Go-to-mat is the ultimate alternative behavior. Once trained, it can head off all sorts of puppy mischief long before it starts.

    A Foundation Skill

    Go-to-mat teaches the all-important skill of targeting. A puppy that knows how to target his body to a specific location can also be trained to go to other places, such as into a crate or car, off the furniture and onto the floor, into a bathtub, or onto a scale to be weighed at a veterinary hospital. Targeting is also the foundational skill for more advanced obedience exercises (e.g., send away, drop on recall, contacts in agility) and many fun tricks (e.g., roll in a blanket), all of which are much easier to train once a dog has developed a strong targeting behavior such as go-to-mat.

    A Socialization Tool

    A puppy that has learned to “love” his mat and relax on it has a portable “security blanket” anywhere he goes. Using go-to-mat in this way can not only help fearful puppies learn to cope with new or challenging environments, it can also provide an emotional “anchor” for puppies that are easily overstimulated, distractible, or impulsive. After puppies learn go-to-mat, their owners often find it much easier to take them on trips or to public places, such as outdoor cafés, parks, dog training centers, and veterinary hospitals.

    How to Teach Go-to-mat

    When go-to-mat is being taught, the goal behavior is that the dog will run to his mat and lie down on cue from any direction, regardless of the handler’s position.

    In clicker training, a dog offers a behavior, and the trainer reinforces it. Although a dog that is new to clicker training may take a little longer to get to the final behavior, I prefer to use clicker training rather than luring (placing food on the mat first to lure the dog to it) to train go-to-mat because clicker training teaches the dog how to think independently. In my experience, once a dog learns to respond to this method of operant conditioning, his ability to quickly learn new behaviors (such as basic and advanced obedience exercises, agility contacts, tricks) grows exponentially over time. Also, breaking go-to-mat training into small approximations (e.g., looking at the mat, stepping toward the mat, sniffing the mat, putting all four feet on the mat) and systematically reinforcing each one teaches a dog, click by click, that voluntarily moving toward the mat is just as rewarding as lying on the mat. This process—often referred to as shaping—allows a dog to discover on his own that the mat is the “magic” object that produces rewards. This “magnetizes” the dog to the mat, creating a powerful, positive emotional response in most dogs. Because the mat is portable, this positive emotional response can be used to help many dogs overcome challenges such as anxiety at the veterinary hospital, fear of riding in a car, overstimulation at an agility trial, or the stress of lying under a table at a busy café.

    To teach go-to-mat, you need the following:

    • A clicker

    • A mat or dog bed

    • 30 to 50 pea-size food rewards for each 3- to 5-minute training session; chicken and cheese are good choices because dogs can easily track them when they are tossed and can swallow them quickly

    • A chair to sit in (optional, but recommended in the early stages of training)

    Step 1: Tracking Throws—Returning to Front

    In a low-distraction environment, sit in the chair and encourage the dog to get focused by clicking and treating him a few times just for standing in front of you. Do not put the mat down yet.

    Next, after each click, begin tossing treats over the dog’s head so that he has to turn away from you to chase them. Because you already clicked when he came and stood in front of you, he should automatically turn around and return to you after eating each treat. At this point, it is important to click as the dog is still moving, not when he is standing still. If you click the dog too many times for standing still, that is what he will offer you. Instead, you want the dog to actively move onto the mat once you put it down.

    Imagine a clock face: your chair is just under 6:00 facing the center, and the dog’s head is at 12:00 facing the chair. You will click as the dog steps in front of you and then immediately toss the treat toward 12:00 to reset the dog for the next repetition  (FIGURE 1) . Repeat this five to 10 times until the dog is tracking each throw smoothly and returning to 6:00.

    Step 2: Paws on the Mat

    Toss a treat over the dog’s head just as before, but this time, as the dog chases it, quickly lay the mat down in front of your chair so it is directly in the dog’s path when he returns. As the dog returns to 6:00, he will inadvertently step on the mat. Click right as the dog’s front feet touch the mat. Then, to set him up to offer the same behavior again, immediately toss a treat over the dog’s head so he has to return to 12:00 to get it. Repeat this five to 10 times, then take a short break. Always treat after each click.

    Step 3: Easy Angles

    Toss a treat to send the dog to 12:00, and if the mat is not already on the floor, lay it out as you did in step 2. When the dog returns to 6:00, click right as he steps on the mat, but toss the next treat at an angle to 2:00 or 10:00 (FIGURE 2) . Continue to click and toss a treat for the dog each time he steps on the mat. Repeat this five to 10 more times. If the dog returns to you but sidesteps the mat, do not click. Instead, pause for 3 seconds, sitting very quietly so the dog can absorb the information that you did not click just then. To reset, toss a treat toward 12:00. As the dog returns to 6:00 and his paws touch the mat, click immediately, and then toss the next treat toward 2:00 or 10:00 again. If the dog repeatedly sidesteps the mat, stop, pick up the mat for a minute, and take a break. Then repeat steps 1 and 2. You can also click the dog for something easier, such as looking at the mat, for a while.

    As the dog becomes more successful at retrieving angled tosses, gradually toss treats to positions, such as 3:00 or 9:00, that create more difficult angles for the dog. Repeat this 10 to 20 times. Then take a break.

    Step 4: Harder Angles

    The angles created by treat tosses between 6:00 and 4:00 as well as 6:00 and 8:00 are often the hardest because the dog will need to turn away from you to return to the mat. Although it may seem as if these angles should be easier for the dog because he has less distance to cover to return to the mat, for most dogs, turning away from the handler (and therefore the source of reinforcement) can be a challenge. However, by asking the dog to turn away from you at this point, you are testing whether he understands that stepping onto the mat—not just returning to you—is generating the clicks and treats.

    Step 5: Lying Down

    Return to tossing treats to 12:00 because a new criterion will be introduced in this step and, when shaping behavior, it is a good idea to focus on only one criterion at a time. Now, instead of clicking right as the dog steps on the mat, wait 1 or 2 seconds before clicking. The first behavior you want to capture is the dog stopping and standing still on the mat. Then, over the course of several 2- to 3-minute sessions, you will want to capture a succession of approximations culminating in the dog lying down. Remember to click andthen treat (by tossing the treat to 12:00 to reset) each time the dog meets your current criterion for an approximation. Some dogs lie down right away; other dogs take a little longer. It is fine if the dog skips an approximation or needs the approximation broken down into smaller steps to be successful. The following are examples of different clickable behaviors the dog might offer; click and treat each approximation no more than three to eight times:

    • Approximation 1: standing still on the mat for 1 to 3 seconds          

    • Approximation 2: sitting or standing with head lowered

    • Approximation 3: moving backward slightly toward a sitting or recumbent position; click any backward movement

    • Approximation 4: bending the front or back legs

    • Approximation 5: moving the abdomen toward the mat

    • Approximation 6: lying on the mat

    Limiting the clicking and treating to no more than three to eight times prevents the dog from getting stuck at any one approximation. When the dog is confidently meeting the current criterion by offering the desired movement promptly after each treat toss, it is probably time to move to the next approximation. To do this, on the next repetition, do not click the first behavior the dog offers if you have already clicked it several times before. Instead, just wait quietly for about 2 to 3 seconds to see what behavior he offers next. At this point, many dogs quickly offer the next approximation in the series, so be ready to click fast to capture the movement. If you time it right, that first click can keep the dog on track because it provides information that tells him exactly what behavior you will now be reinforcing. After you have moved on to the next approximation in the series, it is important to keep your message clear by no longer clicking for previous approximations. However, if the dog gets confused or frustrated at any point, it is fine to stop (be sure to pick up the mat so the dog does not continue to interact with it), take a break, and then return to an easier approximation later. The following signs indicate that the dog is ready for a break or needs the process simplified:

    • The rate of reinforcement drops (one click every 4 to 8 seconds or more is typically too low; aim for one click every 1 to 3 seconds)

    • The dog shows signs of losing interest (e.g., wandering away, sniffing the ground, scratching himself, slowing down, standing and staring at the handler, lying down next to the mat and responding slowly to encouragement to continue) or becoming conflicted or stressed (e.g., yawning, flicking the tongue all the way over the nose )

    Step 6: Putting It All Together

    Reintroduce the angled tosses to test whether the dog understands that he is now supposed to go to the mat and lie down from any position. Click and treat each time the dog returns to the mat and lies down. Repeat this eight to 10 times.

    Step 7: Adding a Cue

    In clicker training, a cue is added only when a dog is performing a behavior reliably and without hesitation.

    Continue tossing treats in different directions around the mat. If you are ready to bet someone $50 that the dog is about to go-to-mat, say the cue the instant you see the dog focus on the mat and commit to going to it. Repeat this 10 to 15 times. Click and treat each correct response. If the dog makes an error, pause for 3 seconds and then toss a treat to reset.

    Begin generalizing the behavior by changing your position relative to the mat. Click and treat all correct responses to the cue. Do this while you are sitting, standing, standing at different spots around the mat, and even facing away from the dog and the mat. You can also try standing farther away from the mat and saying the cue while holding an object (e.g., a grocery bag) or wearing something different (e.g., a big hat). These environmental changes will teach the dog that only the cue matters, regardless of where you are, what you look like, or what you are doing.

    Step 8: Further Generalization Work

    When the dog is confidently running to the mat at least eight out of every 10 times you say the cue—no matter what you are doing or what is going on in the training room—you are now ready to “take it on the road.” Begin by testing the behavior in different rooms of the house and in the yard. As the dog is successful, eventually try go-to-mat in places such as a training class, a park, a friend’s house, or a café. To encourage the dog to stay on the mat, especially in new places, give him a bully stick or Kong to chew or plenty of treats at random intervals, as long as he stays on the mat. At this point, you should no longer need the clicker but should still be very generous with reinforcement. You can gradually reduce the frequency of food rewards, but it is important to regularly reinforce go-to-mat and staying on the mat even after the behavior has been fully trained. Each good experience the dog has with the mat strengthens the behavior. I have found that the following fun methods “supercharge” go-to-mat for my own dogs:

    • Send the dog to his mat, then surprise him with his entire meal right there

    • Hide the mat around the house and have the dog search for it; give him a big “jackpot” when he finds it

    • Use the mat as a “launch pad” for a fun game of tug or fetch by sending the dog there, asking him to stay, and then, if he stays, allowing him to get the toy

    • Place the mat at the top of a flight of stairs (if the stairs are carpeted and safely enclosed) and ask the dog to run up the stairs to the mat and return to you for a treat; this is a great way to exercise a dog on a rainy day

    • Lay the mat next to the dinner table and periodically reinforce the dog’s calm, relaxed behaviors throughout a meal

    • If the dog enjoys Tellington TTouch or massage, perform it on the mat


    I advocate this systematic approach to mat training because it provides a strong foundation for eventually using go-to-mat in more challenging situations, such as when the doorbell rings, at dinnertime, and at the veterinary hospital. The stronger the foundation for the behavior, the more likely the dog is to perform the behavior no matter what is happening around him. That is the power of clicker training!

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    The author’s credentials (KPA-CTP) stand for "Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner."

    NEXT: Tech Tips (October 2011)


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