Using a Snuffle Mat to Lower Arousal in Training

Snuffle mats seem to be all the rage recently.  For those who are unfamiliar with what a snuffle mat is, it's a rubber mat with short strands of fleece tied on the mat to make a very thick grass like look.  The idea is to scatter a few pieces of kibble on the mat so that they fall in between the fleece grass blades, allowing the dog to sniff them out.  Very simple idea.  And a very effective stress reliever for a lot of dogs.

I think we are all familiar with the idea that a dog suddenly sniffing the ground is likely a stressed dog.  Sniffing is a go to stress reliever for many dogs.  Many of us have used this to our advantage when we bring our dogs to a new environment and want to see if they can work.  At the start of every trial, or even every training session, I walk my dogs around the perimeter of the rings and let them sniff to their hearts content.  It's a nice relaxing walk that lets them get used to the area and settle in.  Even during a training session if I'm in a more difficult location I give the dog frequent chances to take a break, to "go sniff."

This need to take a break is pretty obvious in our dogs that stress down, tending towards disengagement.  But it's less obvious in dogs whose arousal levels tend to run high.  If your dog is getting more frantic they likely need a break too.  Sometimes those dogs love to work so much that they don't actually want to take a break even though their brain is turning to mush.  That's where doing a forced acclimation walk can be helpful.  Cue a break, and take a calm walk around before trying to work again.

Sometimes the stress low and the stress high dogs may not need a full break from work.  You just want to calm them down a bit before starting the next rep.  This can help prevent ever higher levels of arousal creeping into the work so, for example, that the dog doesn't start to associate heeling with bouncing and barking.  I think this is where using a snuffle mat, or a cookie scatter just in plain grass, can be very helpful!  Your forcing the dog to take a mental break as he spends some time sniffing out cookies.

At the CDSP trial a few weekends ago I noticed that Vito had a hard time finding the right scent article.  He eventually found and retrieved the correct article, but he looked a bit frantic as he quickly sniffed over each article several times before finally calming down enough to grab the correct one.  Often dogs resort to just guessing when they get like that so I was happy Vito was able to work through it.  But when the issue cropped up again in practice I knew I need to work on lowering Vito's arousal in the article pile.  More than likely it was due to stress, not excitement, but even a dog too excited will feel the stress of frustration.  So I started using a snuffle mat between reps and went back to very easy searches to build Vito's confidence.

We still have some work to go.  Vito is often a little too frantic on his first send still, although he is much more clear headed with the snuffle mat between #1 and further repetitions.  This is his session yesterday, where with distance added back in he shows this:

And yes I didn't really need an actual snuffle mat in the 2nd video when I was outside as well grass.  But I do kinda like the more defined search area it brings to the picture!

Snuffle mats have a variety of uses from general enrichment fun, stress relief, and arousal lowering.  I love that I'm starting to see people even take them to trials!

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