Teaching impulse control - WolfdogProject

Teaching impulse control

30 May

“He knows what I want him to do, but he’s so excited that he just can’t help himself!”

If your dog needs some help with developing impulse control, read on. :-) Soon he will be waiting at doorways, not jumping on guests, sitting politely to receive food or have his leash put on, and otherwise showing what a good canine citizen he can be!

Like children, dogs aren’t born knowing how to get what they want. They develop that skill by trying different things, and using what works. The goal here is to teach them that the most effective way to get anything they want, is to look to their human for guidance. That requires some self-control on their part, which (like any muscle when you exercise!) must be gradually built up over time, with many repetitions. The more they practice delaying their initial response to jump, grab, use their mouth, or rush towards the thing they want, the stronger their control will be. Your job is essentially to 1) PREVENT the impulse from being rewarding, and 2) TEACH a better response that does get the dog what he wants.

Remember that he needs opportunities to practice. If he pulls on lead, avoiding walks won’t help him learn. If he is anxious about people near his food, giving him a wide berth while he eats (or never allowing him high-value food or treats) only avoids triggering the problem – it doesn’t solve the root cause, which is teaching him how to act appropriately. You don’t want a human who is trained to never upset the dog; you want a dog who can handle his impulses. Remember to stay relaxed yourself throughout these exercises; don't lose your cool, or show frustration. If you're feeling overwhelmed and can't help yourself from adding excitement or negative energy to the interaction, put your dog up in a safe place, and then try again later.

One of the first things I teach a dog, is to Sit for anything he wants: food, treats, toys, being leashed up for a walk, petting, etc. I’ll assume you have already taught the Sit. Just remember to ask for one before handing out anything your dog wants. Now, he’s on his way to the mindset that “he works for you”! It will begin the great habit of looking to you for permission and guidance. Other commands besides Sit are good options as well. :-) Feel free to mix it up!

Note: if he just won’t Sit for his food and frantically climbs your legs (or threatens you), tie him to a piece of furniture or a tree, or close the other end of his leash in a door before bringing the food out. Then wait until he is calm and responsive to give it to him. Extreme measures may be necessary once or twice, with a poorly developed adult dog, but you’ll be amazed how quickly he gets with the program once he understands how it all works.

The second thing would be to teach eye contact. Here’s a good description of a method for doing this, here is a video example, and here’s an interesting LCK interpretation for you philosophical types. ;-)

Hopefully your dog is crate trained. This can be essential in an emergency, such as a hurricane evacuation or emergency stay at a relative’s house...and also keeps him safe if he hasn’t yet learned what not to chew, or if there’s something going on in the home that he should be kept separate from. It also teaches him to manage his emotions, to self-soothe, and to develop an “off switch” so he can be calm when there’s nothing specific for him to do. Crate training is an excellent exercise for building self control. You might enjoy Susan Garrett’s program “Crate Games” for introducing your dog to the crate! Dogs can be crate trained at any age; it’s never too late.

Canines have an excellent understanding of personal space, and utilize it often amongst themselves. Here are two links on understanding spatial pressure, and putting it to use with your companion! Also, check out this link on yielding, by the great Dick Russell.

Learning not to bolt out the door is another essential milestone. Here is a good video on keeping your dog from being a door dasher. Check out this video as well. The two combined will give you a peaceful doorway in no time! It can also be practiced with outdoor gates, crates, or any other threshold.

If you train formal obedience, you are already familiar with the Long Down. A comparable skill would be, Go to Place. However, if your dog isn’t trained to this degree, you can practice a simple exercise called Sit on the Dog. :-) It can be done while you watch a movie or work on the computer, and daily practice should create a dramatic difference in your dog’s self-management skills.

Similarly, there’s a little game I like to play with dogs. Get them all revved up, play tug or fetch or just roughhouse with them. Then – firmly say, “Settle”, and hold the dog still for a few seconds. As soon as he stops struggling to get away, say “Yes!” and reward with more high energy play. This basically installs a switch where the dog can turn his excitement off and on at will.

Acclimating a dog to physical restraint is a critical life skill, as well. This should be done when he is a puppy, but it’s never too late, as long as you develop the skill more slowly with adults and are aware of any triggers (such as being held by the collar) that you may need to desensitize him to. With pups (and non-aggressive adults), I not only restrain by leash (during walks, Sit on the Dog, back-tying them to a tree or piece of furniture…) and collar holds, but also handle all body parts including the muzzle, teeth, and paws...hug them from above and lift the front feet off the ground...roll them over, and pick them up. All of this is done in a friendly, loving way, and in a safe location where they aren’t subject to anything scary or stressful nearby. You don’t want the first time a dog has his collar grabbed or his body picked up, to happen quickly in an emergency situation where he is already freaking out, because then you’re likely to be bitten.

Teach loose-leash walking. Here are two of my favourite examples of introducing a dog to yielding to leash pressure: Tyler Muto and Michael Ellis but there are many different effective ways to teach this; I’m sure you can find one that fits your personality and your dog.

Set up his environment so that he can’t self-reward, by doing things you don’t want. Likewise, help him to understand how to get those things in a more appropriate way. (For example, if he is jumping on guests, you can use a leash to prevent his success at jumping - then command a Sit, which results in the visitor petting him as a reward.) All good things come through YOU, and your guidance! “Indirect access” is an extremely useful way to build a more responsive dog, especially with primitive breeds (such as huskies or Shiba inu) or dogs who are not food-motivated.

Basic obedience training goes a long ways towards creating a responsive dog with good impulse control. Often, it provides enough structure that a specific focus on impulse control doesn’t even become necessary. Even “trick training” in exchange for treats, gets the dog in a healthy mindset of respecting human leadership rather than taking too much responsibility upon himself. (Too much responsibility is the fast track to an anxious and oft-times aggressive dog!) Always be clear in your communications with your dog, make sure he 100% knows what you’re asking of him before you accuse him of disobedience, and never give a command you don’t (or can’t) enforce. Working for his people, respecting their space, and trusting that they will be clear and consistent with him lets the dog relax into the role of doing what’s expected of him, and not worrying about anything else. A calm and secure dog is MUCH better positioned to manage his behaviour and impulses.

Here are several additional links on impulse control, and indirect access. :-)








If developing your leadership is giving you trouble, there are MANY different “no free lunch” style programs located approximately halfway down this page:http://wolfdogproject.com/followers.html#no (The page itself describes a non-confrontational rank-reduction program, for dogs who have taken control of too much within the household.)

*I’d like to offer one last bit of advice on managing impulsiveness, especially for those who are raising bully breeds or their mixes, or for folks whose dogs are showing aggressive tendencies when excited. You want to keep your dog “under threshold”, never allowing him to get so aroused that things escalate into very rough play and possibly a full blown attack. Dogs experiencing impulsive aggression seem very happy, tail wagging, lots of enthusiasm as they mouth and jump on people (or other dogs). They often get even more overstimulated when someone tries to interrupt their “play”. While all of the above will help you instill an “off switch” in your dog and greatly improve his ability to control yourself, you also want an additional safety mechanism. Make sure you know how to de-escalate your dog. If he’s mouthing you and starting to bite, it’s usually not the time to yell, wrestle him off, or try to get him more excited about a toy (although you need to know your own individual dog). Don’t psych him up: treats, toys, high pitched voice, “Do you wanna do this, who’s a good boy??” Instead, become a boring target: stand still, don’t make eye contact, try not to make noise or fight back. Go limp and ignore him if possible, then slowly and calmly remove yourself from the situation. You want to de-escalate the situation at the first sign he is starting to ramp up and get out of control. Additionally, if your dog has this behaviour pattern, NEVER take risks that could lead him him escaping the home or yard without being leashed to a responsible adult capable of controlling him. This is a particularly risky behaviour trend that exists in a small portion of the dog population. If this is your dog, please keep yourself and everyone else safe, and consult with a trainer experienced in impulsive aggression.

This article may also be of value.

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