IMPULSE CONTROL - Helping Your Dog Make Better Choices
in the Face of Life's Distractions
For many years I worked with guide dogs for the blind. Guide dogs are the epitome of impulse control. They will be faced with many distractions and triggers – another dog passing on the sidewalk, a person trying to slip them some food at a restaurant, a squirrel or bird crossing their path, a chicken bone someone threw in the community garbage pail and missed.
But a person who is blind or visually impaired cannot rely on only a “leave it” or “stay” command to stop a guide dog from acting on those impulses - they likely will not be able to see that item to give their dog one of those cues. Not to say those are not valuable cues to learn (they are for other reasons), but instead the guide dog must learn to be faced with life’s distractions and make a better choice without being given a cue. This is true impulse control!
Even though most of us do not have or need guide dogs, impulse control is what I consider such a valuable life skill for our pet dogs to learn for so many reasons. Dogs will be dogs – they will want to chase cats and cars, want to scavenge and eat things they find in the back yard, want to jump into that body of water on a hike. But acting on natural impulses can often be unsafe. I’m sure you wouldn’t want your dog to corner that cat and lose an eye, or get hit by that car, or eat a toxic plant, or find out that an alligator or venomous snake is taking up residence in that murky bog.
Impulse control also shows itself in many other ways in everyday life. A dog’s lack of impulse control can be off-putting to other humans – for example, if your friends or family members get jumped and slobbered on at the door, they may no longer want to come visit you. It can also be off-putting to other dogs – for example, if your boisterous impulsive dog bounds up to a dog that just likes his personal space, your dog might get an appropriate nip for being rude.
Building impulse control also works on building a dog’s “frustration tolerance.” We all have moments when we don’t get to have what we want at the time or when things push on our patience. And taking our frustration out in unproductive ways - say, by yelling at the person on the phone because your Amazon order didn’t arrive as planned, or when your dog jumps and nips at you because he doesn’t understand what you are saying and is growing frustrated – often causes more problems. But much like how we may teach our kids that they don’t get to have every toy they want in the toy store or how we learn conflict management strategies for handling issues at work, teaching your dog to control his impulses in life’s toughest situations will help him bring out his best behavior!
To build good impulse control, follow these steps…
First, identify all of your dog's biggest triggers - particular items that causes him to act out impulsively and become bouncy, excitable, or reactive. Depending on the dog, this could be a person/dog he sees on a walk, food at the table or on the counter, a guest coming into the house, a cat peeking at him from behind a bush or scurrying away, a bag of treats, something blowing in the wind, going out the door, seeing his food bowl, etc. Each dog can be different in what they find exciting or valuable so this is where you really have to understand your dog’s individuality and not compare him to other dogs who may not have the same responses to a given trigger.
Put your dog on a leash. By practicing with your dog on leash around these triggers, you are setting a clear parameter and limiting his options. This means you are not allowing him to make mistakes and be successful acting on his impulse, as this can alternatively reward impulsive behavior rather than impulse control (for example: giving into his prey drive and chasing the cat is naturally rewarding to him, so this accidentally increases the likelihood of him continuing to chase the cat instead of increasing the likelihood of him learning to be calm and ignore the cat when he sees it on a walk).
What if your dog is more reactive on leash? Leash reactivity most often occurs when dogs feel either 1) frustrated that they cannot act on their own will or 2) they feel pressure and tension because of the way we handle the leash or try to control them with it. It will be important that you don't use the leash to physically control or micromanage your dog, or jerk back/use a leash correction to keep him away from the trigger/making a bad choice.
If the LEASH is the thing communicating with your dog instead of YOU communicating and TEACHING him a better choice, your dog will not learn the right choice and what you expect of him – which means he will likely keep making the same mistakes over and over again (especially if that action is a natural dog behavior and he doesn’t know what a better choice looks like). And if you do keep using the leash in an attempt to control your dog, he will likely continue to grow frustrated and it can negatively affect your relationship (how many of us like to be micromanaged?).
YOU choose the parameter (not your dog). Only give your dog enough leash length so that it can be loose when he is making the right decision (such as sitting or laying near you) but never enough leash length to reach the trigger that is causing him to be impulsive. You always want to leave a bit of a "distance buffer."
- Each dog is different in terms of at what distance they can handle a trigger successfully but for example, if the trigger is a cat 15 feet away, you may not want to give your dog any more than 4 feet of leash - this leaves you with an 11-foot buffer.
Your parameter may need to change based on how your dog responds to the trigger. The more distracting/stimulating the trigger is, the more distance a dog typically needs from that trigger to be successful. For example, if a cat is walking calmly and not looking at him, he might be able to make the right choice to be calm at 10 feet away. But if the cat is showing fearful/skittish behavior and acting like a prey animal, he may need 20 feet or more from the cat to make better choices and not act to chase it. It may be easier for a dog to be closer to an inanimate object (like a garbage pail, piece of food on the ground or a slipper) than an animate object (like an animal, person, bike or car) that can make noise/move and cross that distance buffer.
Let your dog notice the trigger. Resist the urge to distract your dog by calling his name, telling him to "leave it", "sit", "look at me" etc. As long as it is safe (meaning you/your dog are not in harm's way, you are at a far enough distance and the trigger is not continuing to approach, and your dog is not over his threshold), give him a chance to process the trigger and figure it out. This will help your dog learn to cope with the trigger whereas if we always step in to distract him, he will never really get the chance to process and understand what he is up against (and therefore never take the novelty of the trigger away).
- This involves patience on our part, which sometimes is the hardest thing! But it is extremely valuable to your dog's learning process because it gives him the chance to problem solve and learn to think before acting (which equals better impulse control!)
To be most effective with your timing and rate of reinforcement, it helps if you are right up next to your dog instead of 5 feet behind him on leash. While a dog’s senses are all incredibly strong, they are mostly at the front of the dog’s body – dogs do not always pay attention to what is happening further back along their body. If the trigger is in front of the dog and you are far behind the dog you may as well be on Mars! Decrease the distance between you and your dog by working your way down the leash (gathering it up as you step toward your dog so he cannot lunge forward as you move and get closer to his trigger). Do NOT pull him into you using the leash (as if he were a fish on a line), as this can increase his arousal further! You should now be near your dog’s shoulder where you can also reach his nose/mouth for adequate treat delivery.
When you see your dog hesitate to act or he makes the slightest choice to control himself, even if it is only for a second or two, reward him with lots of verbal praise and a high-value reward. Normally with dog training we reward an action – like come, down or sit. With impulse control we are rewarding inaction, the lack of movement and the ability to stay calm. Make sure your reward package is meaningful enough for your dog – it must be greater than the reward he would get for acting on his impulse! You can figure out what your dog finds most valuable and use it appropriately by understanding his Value Hierarchy.
If your dog is escalating or really struggling to make the choice to control his impulse, that usually means he needs more distance from the trigger to be successful. To put more distance between your dog and the trigger, first get closer to your dog as described above – remember, do NOT pull him into you! Once you are by your dog’s side, call your dog’s name or touch him to get his attention and calmly say "let's go", turn your whole body in the opposite direction of the trigger (think of your shoulders as your steering wheel to point you in the right direction), and walk a few steps away.
With more practice, gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the trigger and then decrease your rate of reinforcement. Once your dog is consistently controlling himself at a particular distance from a particular trigger you can get closer to that trigger, still with a higher rate of reinforcement at first, and then gradually slow your rate of reinforcement. Remember to work in small slices – sometimes a distance of a foot or so can make a big difference to a dog, and if you go “cold turkey” in your reinforcement you may accidentally set your dog back again. Fading off the reward should be gradual and eventually become intermittent, which is the strongest kind of reinforcement. If a dog still gets rewarded occasionally for making good choices, it will keep motivating him to make good choices in the presence of his triggers because he never knows when he might hit the jackpot!
For support in helping your dog to build better impulse control in the face of all of life's distractions - or if your dog has a tendency to jump on children, grab food off the counter, chase the cat or dart out the front/back door - contact Maria directly at (845) 549-0896 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Maria Huntoon, Maria G. Huntoon Canine Consulting Services