While I am still building up my client base, I do get calls and messages from time to time where the dog owners ask for help with a certain behavior, or are looking to eliminate a certain behavior. They are desperate to get their dog to sit. I ask a few more questions, and find out that they are not so much looking for a sit as they are looking for the dog settle, to not jump on guests, to stop begging at the table, to just be calm enough to be loved on. Sit is a great exercise that is incompatible with jumping up, but for all of these issues, the real thing that dog actually needs is impulse control.
What is impulse control for dogs? I’m glad you asked. Impulse control is simply where the dog makes the decision to resist the desire to perform an action. Impulse control can be tough for dogs, because often times those impulses are fueled by instinct. Plus acting on instinct is also self-reinforcing. Dogs are predators, predators chase smaller animals. However, we may not want our dogs chasing cats or risking harm by chasing a bunny out in the street. It sure is fun for them though! Sometimes those impulses are things that have been reinforced in the past, such as when the dog got a great game of chase or tug by chewing on your shoes. Some of it is just because dogs live in the moment, and don’t pause to think a decision through. It looks tasty and unattended, they eat it. It looks like fun, they play with it.
There are also some dogs who lack impulse control, out of fear, frustration or over-arousal. Reactive dogs generally will benefit from some impulse control training, to teach them that they have some control of events in their lives. These are the dogs whose first instinct may be to choose flight, and when they can’t, their next impulse is to fight and carry on.
In this regard, dogs are very much like children. In fact, there are a lot of human issues that come from lack of impulse control as well. Kids are impulsive all of the time, and it is a hard thing to teach them not to be. I should know, I am struggling to teach a kid I work with every day to stop and think before he reacts. I think teaching dogs is easier though. Teenagers are famous for this, because they often times put themselves in a dangerous situation without thinking of the consequences first. It doesn’t always go away in adults either. There are impulsive eaters, impulsive shoppers, impulsive gamblers, and adults who continue to make decisions that could cause them harm.
Impulse control is definitely easier to teach to adult dogs, but it should be started as soon as your puppy comes home. There are so many times in a dog’s day to day life that we can ask them to practice to impulse control, without setting up special training sessions. And the things they do in their day to day life may also serve as the reinforcement as well. If we ask our dog to sit while we put their food bowl down and release them to go eat, the food is the prize. Some other examples that you can do to practice impulse control in your dog’s day to day life are: ask your dog to sit before you scratch their ears, ask them to sit before you leash them up for a walk, sit before they come inside or go outside, wait before getting out of the car or their crate, sitting and taking a chew treat from you calmly. You can teach all of these just as a part of your day to day life, although, your dog will learn these skills faster if you do multiple repetitions during each training sessions. Teach your dog to sit before you throw a toy or play tug with them. You know they have this impulse control game down when they also offer a stay until released to go get the ball. The dog learns that they get what they want by offering calm behaviors.
For other scenarios, you will want to set up training sessions. Teaching your dog to “Leave It” does not necessarily come naturally, and the level of impulse control needed depends on the stimulus and the location. It has to be built up slowly, in the least distracting environment possible, and then increasing distractions in a controlled way. It is really important to teach our dogs that by leaving something alone that they really want, they get something better in return. It’s a trade. Leave-It can be used for dogs who are food thieves, to keep them out of a cat box (gross, I know), away from questionable finds outside, and for chasing other animals. There are lots of amazing games that start to teach dogs to make these choices on their own, by heavily reinforcing the dog when they make the choice that we want them to make. Check out this video for some more information. http://www.dogtrainergames.com/its-yer-choice/ Dogs who pull on the leash and drag you around are lacking impulse control, but it is possible to teach all dogs to walk nicely on a leash. I usually start without a leash, and reinforce lots of checking in with me.
A couple of other set ups that I strongly encourage all dog owners to do are teaching your dog to relax. Just like with some people, some dogs are better at relaxing than others. Lots of mental stimulations will help with this, as will teaching them to go to a set spot in your home, such as a bed or crate. You can send your dog to their spot when you are eating, when guests come, and when you can see that they need a break. They have to be built up to this point, because this is high distraction. I highly recommend Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. https://www.boulderhumane.org/sites/default/files/ProtocolforRelaxation.pdf I also believe that all dogs should learn to respect boundaries. This is where we teach the dog to remain behind a line that we have established. Check out this link here for more information. https://clickertraining.com/node/2409 You may also have to begin some counter-conditioning if your dog’s impulses are based on fear and their fight or flight reflexes. Check this site for more information. http://careforreactivedogs.com/
To start training impulse control, it is always important to assess your dog’s mental state and to decide if they are ready for training at this time. Your dog may be able to handle something at home but will get too excited anywhere else. Don’t put your dog in situations that they won’t be successful in. We always want to set our dogs up for success!
Teaching impulse control to dogs is the answer to so many different behavior issues, which will be the next post. As you can see, this is something I am pretty excited about. I’m looking forward to offering classes on Impulse Control. If you would like to start teaching these skills to your dog, I am here to help!
Hi, I'm Rachel. I'm crazy about dogs and want to see all of them living the best life possible. Most of my free time is taken up by dogs, but when I am not working with my own or others, I also enjoy cooking, volunteer work, reading and Netflix in my pajamas.