Back To The Basics: Impulse Control

By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
When I think about all the dogs I meet and work with on a regular basis, there is a common basic skill that many dogs seem to be lacking – impulse control. Lacking impulse control could be defined as lacking the skill to resist the temptation for immediate reward and generally lack patience or willpower.

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Impulse control is not something that humans are born with and dogs are no different. We need to learn impulse control as we grow up and mature and we also need to teach our dogs impulse control as they grow up and mature. I think it’s an important basic skill and developing impulse control is a big focus in our puppy and early adolescent group classes. We design all of our classroom exercises to help develop impulse control in some way.
Two prominent examples where a lack of impulse control can be very evident in dogs is greeting people and walking on leash.

“How can I get my dog to quit jumping on people?” is a common question from clients. As with everything I talk about, taking a proactive approach is always the first step. If you have an untrained or rambunctious adolescent or young adult, do not put them in situations they are not yet skilled enough to handle. Don’t wait for the problem and then react to it – set your dog up for success by making the right answer an easier one. So to be proactive, don’t let your dog get close enough to people to jump on them. Keep him at a distance so he doesn’t get reinforced for behaviour you don’t like. It’s your job to be an advocate for your dog – ask people to keep their distance while you’re training your dog. If people still insist on coming closer to pet your dog, just turn and leave – they are not helping you and they are not helping your dog! Basic training 101: behaviour that continues to be reinforced randomly will get stronger.

The next step is to do some training and change that behaviour!

You can turn the approach of people into a cue for your dog to either sit and be calm or to simply be calm and keep his feet on the ground. It would be nice for your dog to learn to do this on his own without the need for constant prompting.

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Here’s a simple beginning exercise we teach in our classes:“4 on the Floor”

  • Tether your dog by his leash to a tether spot or have a helper hang on to the end of his leash.
  • Cue your dog that you are about to start working: “Ready?!”
  • Approach your dog at a fairly slow speed, stop beyond his reach and wait for him to calm down and have 4 feet on the ground. Click and toss him a treat.
  • Repeat this many times until he is easily able to remain calm while you approach.
  • Once he is has mastered this, begin to change your approach in some way – (1) approach from a different angle, (2) approach at different speeds, (3) come in a bit closer, (4) add some enthusiastic chatter, etc.
  • Practice this exercise with everyone in the family taking a turn approaching your dog.
  • The next step is to practice this with you holding the leash and standing beside your dog while other people approach. Start with family and people familiar to your dog to make the initial training easier.
  • Make sure you end each exercise by letting your dog know you are finished working together: “All Done!”

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My goal is to have my dog calmly sitting beside me while I chat with someone I’ve met on the street. If my dog likes people and someone is interested in petting him, that can happen after he remains calm and keeps his feet on the ground and I’ve given the ok!

One rule I have for people I encounter on the street – I do not allow people to feed or offer food to my dog. You should be the only one offering the treat when you’re working on your dog’s be- haviour. It does not help create a friendly dog when you have strangers offer them food. It can be scary for dogs who are shy or worried about people, and you simply do not want your dog to think that everyone carries food for him. You can easily create a bigger problem than you have now!

Another clear display of a lack of impulse control is poor leash walking skills.
What defines poor leash walking skills? Dogs who are pulling, barking and lunging at dogs or people, darting in front or behind you to chase a squirrel, endlessly sniffing, and often ignoring most if not all of your attempts to change their behaviour!
While there are a lot of tools on the market that are designed to make it easier to walk a dog, it is our job to teach our dogs how to properly walk on leash without the need for lifetime assis- tance. Training tools like no-pull harnesses are great but are designed to help control the for- ward momentum of a strong dog until you are able to teach them how to walk politely on leash. Then the tool should no longer be necessary and a comfortable, well-fitting body harness can ideally be used. Dogs who learn to walk nicely on leash are dogs who are doing a job – the job of polite leash walking. They are thinking, and keeping one part of their brain on what they’re doing and one part on what you’re doing – are you turning, are you slowing down or speeding up? Dogs who are doing their jobs are calmer, more confident, less aroused and much more engaged with their leash walking partners – that would be you, at the other end of the leash!Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 2.53.02 PM

Dogs seem to think that pulling gets them somewhere and indeed it does – if you let it! The easiest and most profound consequence you can apply is to simply stop moving. Proactively, there are many things you can do to teach your dog that the presence of the leash does not mean “move as fast as you can until something stops you”. It would be better if the presence of the leash meant “stay close to me” or “no pressure”.

Here’s a simple exercise that we often recommend as a good starting point to change how your dogs walks on leash:

  • In your living room or another quiet room in your house, have ready a clicker (or use a verbal marker) and some very tiny, very yummy treats.
  • Get your dog’s attention, pick up his leash and hold it loosely in your hand but do not attach it to your dog.
  • Give him a cue that you are about to begin working – “Ready?!”.
  • Begin clicking (or marking) and treating your dog rapidly for simply remaining with you while you stand still holding his leash in one hand.
  • After about 10 clicks and treats, take a few steps and continue clicking and treating while your dog remains with you.
  • Move slowly about the room and continue to click and treat rapidly as long as your dog re- mains with you.
  • After about 10 minutes end the session – give your dog a release cue – “All Done!” And put down your leash.

Do this same exercise in other parts of your house, yard or other confined areas and see if you can keep your dog with you without having his leash attached.You can make the exercise more fun for your dog by changing speeds and directions frequently.
Our goal is for the leash to become a cue to “stay with me” – not just a physical tether he is un- able to get away from.

How do you think your dog’s impulse control is? Are there some areas that you could improve upon? Do you find yourself saying “Down!”, “Off!”, “No!” a lot?! As you move forward in your training with your dog, focus on areas where your dog can learn some new skills to help him be more polite and pleasant to hang out with. As always, keep it positive and keep it fun!