Teaching a Dog Impulse Control

When I talk about dog training, I always start by explaining to people the difference between obedience and etiquette or manners. I have a blog post where you can read more about the differences, but the short version is this:

  • obedience is telling your dog what to do and he does it
  • etiquette, or manners, is how your dog is acting when you are not telling him what to do.

When I train dogs, I focus almost all of my attention on manners.  I teach dogs to make good choices all by themselves, without anyone telling them what to do.

I have amazing success with dogs and witness huge transformations on what it is like to live with dogs because I focus on teaching dogs impulse control.

The way I see it is almost every behavior problem that a dog can have has some connection to his inability to control his impulses.  Think of something as minor as jumping up on you when he sees you.  Your dog is not able to control himself.  He can’t control the impulse to jump on you.  Now think of something as extreme as aggression, dog’s aggression with other dogs or with other people.  Your dog isn’t able to control his impulses in the presence of a trigger caused by over-excitement, anxiety, stress, or fear.  Either way you look at it, the fundamental problem is linked directly to your dog’s inability to manage his impulses.

A dog's impulse control has huge effects on every area of their life. Click To Tweet

When I teach dogs to control their impulses, it has huge effects on every area of their life.  When your dog learns to control his impulses with a variety of different types of distractions, he can thrive in any environment.  I start a dog out with minimal distractions to set him up for success, and I build slowly up to higher and higher levels of distractions.  For example, I may ask an experienced dog to lay calmly at my feet while there are other dogs playing in the same space just to practice him impulse control.  As a reward, after he lays calmly for 5 or 10 minutes, I may let him off leash and allow him to go and play.  I would be offering the biggest reinforcement I could give my dog, and it would be for having demonstrated impulse control in the face of very large distractions.

All day, every day, everything you’re doing is related to impulse control.  You can start to look for opportunities in your dog’s day where you can allow him to demonstrate impulse control and reinforce him.

  • While you are on a walk, your dog can’t pull when he sees a squirrel, another dog, or a person walking by for him to control the impulse to lunge forward.
  • When you are saying hello to a friend, your dog can sit and wait as your friend approaches you as an opportunity for him to control his impulse.
  • When you are greeting another dog, always look for your dog to first demonstrate his ability to wait and be calm.  Upon successful demonstration of impulse control in the vicinity of another dog, allow him to go say hi.
  • When you pass through a narrow space in your house like a hallway, expect your dog to demonstrate impulse control by slowing down, moving to the side, and allowing you to go first.
  • When you are playing with your dog and his toys, you have a lot of opportunities to also be working on impulse control.   If you are going to pick up his toy, he must control his desire to rush forward and grab the toy before you get to it.  If you are holding his toy, your dog can not try to take it out of your hand unless you are clearly giving it to him.  You can even ask your dog to wait while you throw his toy and then release him to go get it- an ideal exercise for impulse control.  A lot of this has to do with raising a dog with good manners but it’s also impulse control.
  • When you are enjoying a meal is another great opportunity for your dog to demonstrate impulse control.  What if you’re eating on the floor or in an area where your dog could actually almost try to get to the food?  Is your dog demonstrating impulse control when you’re cooking in the kitchen or is he pushy and under your feet and doing things to try to get your attention or is he just laying calmly in the other side of the room not disturbing you, not bothering you?
  • Do you have kids?  What does your dog do when your kids run unexpectedly across the room?  What is your dog allowed to do in that scenario?  It all depends on your definition but I’m guessing he is not allowed to jump on them or mouth or bite them.  So it’s a good time to focus on impulse control.  What about when your kids leave their toys on the floor?  Is your dog chewing them or controlling his impulses and leaving them alone?
  • Letting your dog out of his crate is a consistent chance to integrate impulse control exercises into your daily routine.  Your dog should wait inside his crate until you release him even after you have opened the crate door.  I like to have my dog calmly looking up at me before I release him from his crate.  You can work towards having your dog remain calm inside his crate with the door opened as you move farther and farther away from his crate.  And for bonus points, have your dog remain calm when you release him!  Pay close attention to the tone of your voice when you release him and make sure you exude calmness.  Many people inadvertently work their dogs up into a frenzy by the high-pitched, excited, hyper greeting they give their dog.  Your dog will feed off of your energy.
  • Teach your dogs to have boundaries or areas of your home they are not allowed and use a rope on the ground to identify the boundary.  Boundary training is sort of like a baby gate except it’s invisible.  It’s just a rope on the ground.  A baby gate physically locks a dog into one space and is inconvenient for you to step over. A boundary rope on the ground is beneficial because you are mentally blocking a dog into a space.  The mental capacity it takes to keep a dog from crossing a rope on the floor is valuable for many reasons, but the impulse control it takes to not cross the rope is the most important.  If your dog crosses the rope, he gets corrected.  If your dog chooses not to cross the rope, he gets rewarded.  It doesn’t take dogs very long to learn this and the benefits are significant.  You can walk with your dog right up to the rope and as soon as you step over it, your dog will stop in his tracks and not go with you.  The fact that your dog has to engage his brain, concentrate, and pay attention to his environment, incorporates all components linked to having a dog with impulse control.  This is the best impulse control exercise I use.  I offer a kit for sale to teach you how to train this valuable behavior.  If you would like a boundary training kit, please contact us and we will arrange delivery.

2015-01-22_0936 You need to determine where your dog finds impulse control to be the most challenging.  Once you have figured it out, spend more than 50 percent of your time working impulse control in the area that is most difficult for your dog.

For some dogs, it may be really difficult for him to wait when you put his food on the ground for you release him to go eat it.  For other dogs, waiting for food may be simple.

For some dogs, throwing a toy and making them wait might be really hard and some may not even care to go chase it when you release them.

For some dogs, the blocking exercise through narrow spaces of your house will be the most difficult and for some dogs this will come naturally.   

Whatever area is the hardest for your dog is where you should spend most of your time working.  Be on the lookout for times when your dog wants something and use it as an opportunity to have your dog demonstrate impulse control first and then reinforce him for his patience.

 

When I wake up in the morning and I’m working with dogs all day long, day in and day out, from morning until night, I am living inside a constant conversation about impulse control.  I’m watching their behavior.  I’m analyzing their behavior.  I’m shaping their behavior.  I’m correcting their behavior.  I’m reinforcing their behavior almost entirely linked to impulse control.

So watch your dog. Pay attention. Ask yourself if you are taking advantage of the opportunities in your everyday life where you can be practicing better impulse control or are you missing opportunities?

My question for you is, “After thinking about this, what do you see for yourself and your dog, in your relationship with your dog?”

Did anything come to mind as you are thinking like this?  When you’re analyzing your dog’s behavior related to impulse control, what do you see?  What is something that your dog does that you often wish he didn’t do or did less of?  How is that linked to impulse control?

Share in the comments below a problem behavior for your dog and how it is linked to impulse control.  If you’d like suggestions on how to practice with your dog, let me know and I’d be happy to help.

6 Comments on “Teaching a Dog Impulse Control”

  1. Awesome article!! Working on impulse control really bleeds over into other areas of training and is very easy to train daily. One other big area to work impulse control is going in and out of doorways (thresholds). It’s one of my pet peeves and something I work on religiously. All my dogs are taught to wait before entering doorways until they are given the release command (I use OK). If you ever been hit in the legs by a 70lb dog barreling out of a door, you understand why this is so important.

    1. Thanks Anthony! We always make sure dogs stay behind us unless given permission to go ahead of us in ALL areas that are narrow including doorways, stairways, hallways, and some kitchen galleys. I take it one step further than you, perhaps, in that I do not give a command to wait, it is expected and quickly becomes a dog’s default behavior to calmly wait and look to me to know when they can continue forward. Keep up the great work!!

  2. My dog has all of these issues and then some. My family all all feel like I should get rid of him but I do love him and he loves me but in not sure how much longer even i can take it. He’s a yr old Chesapeake bay retreiver/German sheppard mix. I have had him neutered, he’s now in medication to calm him and still is out of control! I feel as though I am very consistent with his corrections, have used a shock collar, treats, everything is a nightmare with him, walks are horrible, chasing cars, jumping up on the table constanly, jumping up on people, nibbling on everyone, scratching everyone, can’t play with him because he won’t give, his brain just doesn’t seem to work.I do not have the money for obedience class so I have read books, watched videos, you name it and I do not feel as though I have made any progress, got him at three months old and still fighting the same battles, I can not Ever leave him in a room alone or he will destroy something, he’s already ruined to rugs and countless other things. At this point in not even sure why I’m still trying so hard with him but I’m not ready to give up yet. Pls help if at all possible. Thank you

    1. Tammy, it sounds like you have your hands full! Thanks for reaching out. I’d love to help you. As far as free resources that we offer to help, I recommend reading more of our blog articles and watch all of the 140 Periscope videos we have on our YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfiQDVFehkw&list=PLj6EMopbntQ57c_HdlHzETv9-v8Ugzvh8). For more focused help, I recommend purchasing our online dog training program called Manners Matter. It’s reasonably priced, especially for what you get for it! http://www.bit.ly/MannersMatter. I can also do Skype sessions for more personal attention.

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