By Courtney Emken
co-written by Jen Larson, KPA-CTP, and Bart Emken, CPTD-KA
Self control doesn’t come naturally to canines (surviving on scavenged scraps for thousands of years will do that to you!). Imagine your dog as a little toddler: impulsive, impatient— just living for the moment without thinking of any consequences. If they see some candy, they’ll eat that candy. If they spot a shiny coin, they’ll probably eat that too.
Of course, just like that toddler, your dog isn’t ambitious. Dogs don’t plot to steal food from the counter, they simply lack the restraint to control their urges. In other words, they just don’t know any better. Fortunately, we can teach them otherwise. In this article we’ll show you how to build impulse control through easy, fun exercises. Let’s get training!
Training Impulse Control: AKA “The Art Of Patience”
Let’s begin by entering the canine mind for a moment— what is Fido thinking when he walks by that countertop laden with tasty treats? His scavenger instinct kicks into full gear. He’s thinking “when are you ever gonna see bacon like that again? Just go for it man!” This is the same impulse that underlies behavioral issues like:
In the wild, and during the domestication process, opportunism like that was often rewarded with better shares of food and increased odds of survival. Fido is just acting on instincts that helped his canine ancestors thrive. Unfortunately, this is no way for a household companion to behave.
However, if Fido has learned impulse control, he’ll be able to walk by that juicy steak or tantalizing bacon without so much as a second glance. He still wants that treat, but now he knows that being patient will yield better rewards.
Unfortunately, teaching patience isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. You’ll need to think like a dog again. Things that can seem insignificant to us can majorly reinforce impulsivity for dogs. Think about all the different resources you provide your dog throughout the day, such as:
- Going outside
- Jumping on the bed
- Jumping on the couch
Each of these is a big reward for your dog. So when they impulsively jump on the couch and aren’t redirected or cued away from it, they learn that following their urges earns them rewards. Unless you pay careful attention, you may be positively reinforcing impulsivity by accident.
To combat this, ask your dog to perform certain cues before allowing them access to a resource. For instance, if your dog practically bowls you over when you open the door, try asking them to sit before going outside. If they wait patiently, give them a treat and let them leave. Otherwise, leave the door and wait until you can get a calm sit out of them first.
Another great exercise in self-control is to ask for a “sit” before you set their food bowl down. As you lower the bowl, watch for any movement forward. If they leap to you, remove the bowl and ask for another “sit.” Once they can stay still, let them at it! These little habits are critical in training impulse control, and must be consistently practiced throughout the day.
How To Teach A Puppy Impulse Control
As we mentioned earlier, impulse control is a foundational skill. The earlier your dog masters this self-control, the easier training will be down the line. You also decrease the risk for behavioral issues such as:
Luckily, you can begin to build impulse control almost immediately with puppies. If you’re familiar with the cue “leave it,” then this will sound very familiar to you. If you aren’t, worry not! It’s one of the easiest tricks in the book.
First, get a tasty treat that you know your puppy loves. Hold it firmly between your fingers in front of the pup, making sure they can’t quite get to it. Your puppy will beg, whine, and smack your hand repeatedly— saying “gimme, gimme, gimme!” Don’t give in, no matter how cute!
After this initial begging, the puppy will calm down and lose interest. Once they back away or shift their focus, go ahead and give them their well-deserved treat. You’re showing the puppy that the way they get food is by moving away from it. They think “oh, so if I sit still and don’t try to take the food I get it anyway! Yay!”
Before we wrap up, we want to mention that there are some old-fashioned “fixes” for impulse control that we strongly discourage anyone from using. For instance, aversive and “balanced” trainers would teach owners to knee their dogs in the chest to discourage jumping. This isn’t teaching your dog anything. It’s just hurting and confusing them.
If you’re having difficulty teaching your dog impulse control, please contact us today. Our trainers are experts in positive reinforcement training and can easily walk you through the finer details of building your dog’s self control. Happy training!