The Magic of Teaching Your Dog to Go to Mat

Teaching your dog to park himself on a mat might be one of the most useful skills you could ever train.

Once your dog has learned the skill, there are countless ways to use it. For example:

  • When your dog is a little too excited and needs to settle, the mat becomes a place to relax and practice patience.
  • When you need to give your guests some extra space.
  • When someone knocks at your door or rings the doorbell, cue the dog to go to mat so that your visitor isn’t mobbed by an excited canine.
  • When you’re enjoying a meal.
  • Multiple dog homes can run with less chaos if each dog is able to go to his mat on cue. When you’re training, invite your dog to settle on a mat as a break between sessions or while you work with another dog. Taking turns is an important lesson for dogs, too.
  • When you need to build self-control, send the dog to mat and incrementally add greater levels of distraction to help the dog build steadiness and control.
  • The mat is a great way to train a dog to be calm and quiet in his crate. Once he understands the behavior designated by the mat, use it to facilitate that same relaxed down in the car.
  • When the dog needs a clearly defined boundary, the mat designates where the dog should be and where children should not be. Explain to children that the mat is the dog’s “home base,” a space that the dog can call his own.
  • To keep your dog clean, the mat provides a comfortable spot where she is protected from heat, cold, or damp surfaces.
Chilling on mats while food prep is happening in the kitchen.

You can build your dog’s confidence by teaching him to go to mat.

When taking my dogs to a new location or to meet new friends, I often take a mat. When I do this, I’m taking a “known behavior” — something the dog has been trained to do and for which he has been heavily reinforced. It’s a safe, familiar spot for my dog to hang out.

“Go to mat” can also solve some common problem behaviors like counter-surfing, jumping or door dashing. If your dog is lying comfortably on his mat, he can’t also be carrying out those behaviors.

Here’s how to teach your dog to “go to mat.”

Begin by adding value to the mat 

Help your dog value the mat by association before you even begin formal training. When I’m watching TV, relaxing on the sofa or working on my computer, I place the mat nearby. I invite my dog to lay on the mat and slowly, calmly and steadily drop treats around him. Sometimes I feed his entire meal just by dribbling pieces of kibble around him while he is on the mat.

After several reinforcing visits to the mat, the pup begins to value that space and seek it out in hopes of more reinforcement. When you’ve added value to the mat, it will becomes like a magnet! Your pup will be immediately attracted to the mat when you get it out.

Train your dog to “go to mat” 

When your dog understands that the mat has value, it will be difficult to even place the mat on the floor because the pup is so eager to get on it.

Once you’ve established that magnetic attraction, training is easy!

If your dog needs a little hint – if he doesn’t feel irresistibly attracted to the mat – you can either continue to add value to the mat or you can set him up for success via savvy placement of the mat.

In the next video example, I place the mat between me and the young pup and then toss a treat on the other side of the mat. I knew the puppy was likely to turn and move back toward me after grabbing his treat, so I placed the mat where he is almost guaranteed to step on.

Remember to click when the pup offers the behavior you want, and then give him his reward.

Training Tip: In the early stages of training, toss the treat onto the mat when the dog goes to mat. Toss several treats, one a time, then, try tossing one treat off the mat. If the pup really understands the behavior you are reinforcing, he will quickly go right back to the mat. When he is consistently grabbing his treat and quickly turning back to get on the mat, you will know he knows the job.

Remember that, as always, there is no need to add a cue until the pup understands the behavior.

When he is quickly turning back to mat from any direction, add the cue just as he is orienting back to the mat. I use the cue “place,” but any cue will work. I’ve heard “mat,” “go to bed,” “settle,” and “hit the sack.” 

Slip your cue in just as the dog is turning to come back to the mat.

Later, you can begin to say the word a little earlier, but initially just say the word as he is returning to mat so that he begins to connect that behavior with that word. When that connection is made, you can say the word anytime and the dog will trot quickly to the mat.

Watch for the magical “down” on the mat

At some point, your dog is likely to offer a down when he gets on the mat. I wait for my dogs to offer the down on their own, but some people cue “down” when their dog is confidently hopping on the mat.

When the dog readily offers a down on the mat, you can change your criteria.

Now you can wait for your dog to lie down on mat and then click and reinforce. You will no longer reinforce your dog for simply going to the mat; now your dog should go to the mat and lie down to complete the behavior.

Build duration slowly

OK, your dog can “go to mat.” Now you’ll need to teach him that you’d like him to stay there for a few minutes. Maybe you ultimately want him to stay while you go answer the door, eat your dinner, train another dog, or unload the dishwasher. Any of those activities take time. Build your dog’s duration slowly and incrementally.

When your dog goes to mat and lies down, wait one second and then click and treat. Then, stretch to two seconds, then three, and continue to build that duration slowly so that you aren’t asking for more than your dog is ready to give. Build success upon success.

Add distractions

As your dog is able to stay on the mat for some duration (I suggest about 30 seconds), begin to incrementally introduce distractions. Start with something easy like shifting your weight. Slowly increase the difficulty by taking one step away, then two steps, roll a ball or open a door. Teach your dog to stay on the mat until you release them to the next activity.

Change the cue

Now that your dog can “go to mat” and “stay on mat,” there are so many fun things you can do. You can teach your dog that a knock on the door or the ring of the doorbell is the new cue. How nice it is when your dog automatically goes to his mat and waits whenever someone comes to the door!

Training Tip for adding a new cue: Use the new cue, then use the old cue, then wait for the behavior and click and treat. After a few repetitions, your dog will begin to associate the behavior with the new cue and you can fade the old cue completely.

In this example, Nya is learning that the new cue to go to mat is the sound of the doorbell.

Can you think of more practical (or fun) uses for “go to mat”? Please share them! We’d love to see pictures of your dog showing off his mat skills!

Rachel Thornton is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed, a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy of Animal Training and Behavior and Owner of Cold Nose College Natchez Trace located in Hamilton, Alabama. She’s also well-known trainer and mentor in the service dog community. Rachel offers force-free training and behavior consulting to clients in the tri-state area of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. 205-412-3612; www.coldnosecollege.com

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