Impulse control in dogs is likely something most dog owners would like to see more in their dogs, because let's face it: left to their own devices, dogs and animals in general don't really have much tendency (or interest) in controlling their urges. Carpe diem, "seize the day" seems to be a good motto for dogs, and who can blame them? If a sandwich is sitting on the table and nobody is around to claim it, why not eat it? If a squirrel end in the yard, why not chase it? This is where training comes into place when it comes to impulse control in dogs. After all, if we think about it, dog training aims for a good part in helping dogs learn how to cope with the temptation for an immediate reward in exchange delayed gratification.
Definition of Impulse Control in Dogs
Impulse control in dogs, as the name implies, involves being capable of resisting the impulse to perform an action. As much as the power to control impulses may seem like what differentiates humans from animals, consider that among us humans, impulse control can also be difficult to exert in certain occasions.
Just think about the term "impulse buyers" referring to people who cannot control their impulse to buy things despite not needing them or not having the financial means to pay them off.
There several other forms of impulse control problems affecting humans such as binge eating; the urge to overeat in certain situations, or pathological gambling; the urge to gamble despite loss of money, job and family relationships. And of course, there are several other addictions.
Fortunately, dogs aren't much prone to some of the impulse control disorders humans may suffer from such as drinking or gambling; instead, most of their impulse control "problems" stem from natural behaviors that are self-reinforcing or that bring some sort of external reward.
Jumping on people, chasing after a squirrel, pulling on the leash, eating food when it drops, are some behaviors dog owners often complain about. Dealing with these "problems" takes teaching dogs coping mechanisms and that patience ultimately pays off.
A Matter of Age
Just like children, dogs are more adept into learning better impulse control as they mature. Puppies and young dog may have a hard time learning to control their impulses, but as they mature, this ability becomes more ingrained.
This is also a reason why dogs such as service dogs and police dogs are sent to "serious training" after reaching maturity. Sure, training can (and should) start as early as possible since puppies require early socialization and training in basic manners, but generally advanced training starts when the dogs are mentally and physically ready for the demands of such advanced training.
According to Steven Lindsay, impulse control in young pups is not really much feasible from a developmental standpoint as they yet haven't developed the neuro-biological capacity to exert impulse control in a "refined and reliable way."
He adds that the regulation of impulses likely takes place in the dog's pre-frontal cortex and that the area is not developed until later in the dog's first year when cognitive abilities start emerging.
"A puppy under one year of age is not mentally or emotionally up to the challenge of shouldering the full responsibilities of a service dog and pushing them into that position is very highly likely to burn them out so that they don't want to be a service dog when they get older." ~Service Dog Central
Exercises to Teach Impulse Control in Dogs
Most of these dog impulse control training exercises entail teaching the dog that his impulsive behavior will no longer yield them a reward. If you think about it, most undesirable dog behaviors persist because the dog is being rewarded for his actions in some way.
Your dog pulls on walks? Pulling get him faster and closer to what he wants to to reach. Your dog acts impatient when you prepare his meal? His impatient behavior is rewarded by being fed the meal. Tackling these issues therefore requires teaching the dog that these rewards are now contingent upon calm behaviors, and no longer the other way around.
Many of these exercises incorporate a "stay" to some extent. The stay cue is a very helpful for teaching impulse control, so if your dog knows this cue already, he's at an advantage. He will just need to have it gradually "proofed" to certain distracting situations.
Before starting these exercises it's important to read the "A Word of Caution" section so to be prepared on what to expect. If in any doubt, please consult with a dog trainer or behavior consultant invested in using positive training methods.
1) Calm Walks Towards the Door
What happen in your home when it's time to go on a walk? Does your dog go bonkers and starts jumping and pulling when you put the leash on and walk towards the door? Time for a change! So put the leash on as usual, but this time, go sit on the couch the moment he starts acting up. Your dog will be surprised by this change of routine, but he'll soon catch up once he'll put his brain to work and starts understanding the new dynamics.
At first, he may get impatient, he might try to pull you towards the door or start jumping or chewing on the leash. Do nothing in this case, just wait it out. At some point your dog will calm down and perhaps sit or lie down. When he does this, say "yes" and get up and walk towards the door.
If he starts acting hyper again, walk back to the couch and sit down once again. Wait for your dog to sit once again or lie down and then say "yes!" and get up again. Rinse and repeat several times until you're able to walk calmly towards the door. After several days of doing this exercise, you can try the next exercise.
"By reinforcing for certain body postures associated with relaxation, the body can be conditioned to achieve those states more frequently. This is a matter of maximizing the use of classical conditioning during operant training...Eventually relaxed muscles, lowered heart rate and respiratory rate etc. become classically conditioned to the "sit" cue and the sit position. "~The Dog Trainer's Resource
2) Automatic Sits at the Door
What happens in your home when you put on the leash and you open the door? Does your dog bolt out of the door risking that your elbow coming out of its socket? Well, starting today, it's time for a change. Here's how. After your dog gets good at sitting down when you put the leash on and calmly walking towards the door, it's time to ask for automatic sits by the door. Ask your dog to sit and open the door only if he stays seated. If he gets up from the sit, close the door. When he sits again start opening the door, but be ready to close if he gives any signs of getting up.
This exercises will entail opening and closing the door several times at first, but eventually your dog will learn that. when he sits, the door opens, when he gets up, the door starts closing.
When he stays nicely put despite the door being open, say "yes!" and go on your walk. If you want to further raise the bar, you can train your dog to sit the moment you place your hand on the door knob. After some time, your dog should learn to sit automatically when he's in front of the door. Remember: always practice this on leash!
"Truly conditioned default, or automatic, behaviors can override instinctive behaviors. A default behavior is one that the dog can fall back on when he is upset, frustrated, excited, or just plain wants something he's not getting." ~Leslie McDevitt
3) Calmer Outdoor Walks
What happens when you go on a walk? Is your dog pulling you left and right to go meet other dogs, people or to go sniff a bush or go mark a lamppost? Well, in these cases your dog is seeking instant gratification, and keeps doing this because of the reward of getting to greet people, meeting other dogs, sniffing the bush and peeing on the lamppost. Starting today though, you will teach him that only calm behavior grants him access to these things.
So from today, switch the rules around. A slack leash becomes your accelerator and a tight leash becomes your break. Make it very clear, praise your dog when the leash is slack, say "yes!," give a treat if you wish, and resume walking.
Remember to slow down walking when your dog starts walking ahead and come to a stop when he's actively pulling. Call him by your side so the leash is slack again, say "yes" and resume walking. After a while , your dog will understand the new rules of the game.
Don't forget to reward him every now and then when the leash is slack by sending him to sniff the bush or mark the lamppost, but you might want to stop letting him meet and greet people and other dogs to avoid future problems. Not all people or dogs may be eager to meet your dog!
4) Waiting For Food
What happens in your home when it's your dog's meal time? Are you surrounded by your pacing dog whining and circling around you like a shark? For sake of comparison, that's like a person at a restaurant complaining that food service is too slow. "Hurry up mom! Get that food ready, now!"
If you just put the food bowl down when your dog is acting this way, congratulations, you have just rewarded his behavior, so next time, expect this behavior to pop up again, and even get worse.
Instead, starting today, try to teach your dog how to control himself more. You might get a bit of complaining especially at the beginning, but if you persevere, you will start seeing results. Here's what to do. While your dog is out in the yard or somebody is walking him, prepare his food in advance. Then, call your dog. Ask him to sit and only once he's sitting, lower the food bowl. If he gets up from the sit before you put the bowl down, immediately raise the food bowl.
When he sits again, start lowering it. You might find yourself lowering and raising the food bowl repeatedly, but that's OK, it won't take long for your dog to learn that "when my bottom is on the floor, the food bowl gets closer, and when I get up it gets out of reach." Finally, when your dog sits and stays seated until the food bowl is down, praise him and let him enjoy his meal. Good boy!
5) Leaving Dropped Items
What happens in your home when you drop something on the floor? Does your dog rush over to eat it likes there's no tomorrow? What if you move away from the table a moment? Does he steal your sandwich? In such a case, you may want to teach your dog to control his urge to eat anything in sight, but most importantly, you may want to safeguard your dog from ingesting something potentially harmful one day. You may therefore want to teach your dog that "leaving it" and delaying instant gratification is worthy big time.
To teach this valuable lesson, prepare yourself with some high-value treats that are higher in value than the items you are planning to practice "leave it" with. So you can start by holding the lower value food in your hand. When he tries to get it, say "leave it" and close your hand.
When he gives up trying, say yes! and reward him with something that's higher value in your other hand. Or say you drop something on the floor, like a piece of bread, then, the moment your dog walks towards it, you would say "leave it" as you step on it with your foot.
Your dog may go towards your foot and try sniffing it or try grabbing it from under your foot. Wait it out. When your dog gives up, say "yes!" and give him the high-value treat. Repeat this several times, gradually introducing different (and safe) items to practice with until your dog is able to 'leave it" without you covering the item with your foot. Practice adding distance too, so that you can say "leave it" when you are across the room and your dog will come to you happily in anticipation of his well-earned reward.
6) Structured Games
What happens in your home when you grab a toy and are ready to play with your dog? Does your dog go bonkers, barking and spinning in circles? Time for a change! If your dog loves to fetch, start asking him to sit before you toss the ball. Then let him fetch it and then rinse and repeat.
If your dog at any times starts barking or spinning don't toss it though as you only want to reward calm behaviors. If your dog was used to you tossing the ball when he was acting impatient, expect his behavior to escalate (extinction burst) a bit before he gets the idea that only calm behaviors get you tossing the ball.
Ready for another challenge? Ask your dog to sit and stay even once the ball touches the ground. This might take a while to master, but it's another good exercise to train for those dogs who need more impulse control or if you want to impress your family and friends.
Another great games to teach is Ian Dunbar's Jazz up and Settle Down game. In this game, you will be basically purposely getting your dog revved up with a toy as you act silly, but then in the midst of all, you will be asking your dog to sit. When he sits, you will be rewarding your dog for the calm behavior by resuming the game. This game provides you with a handy "off switch" for those times your dog is acting hyper.
A Word of Caution
If your dog has a history of lacking impulse control, expect to encounter a few bumps on your journey to teaching him calmer behaviors. What happens when you always brought candy to your child and then one day out of the blue, you realize you don't have change in your pocket? Your child will likely have big temper tantrum and you would likely have to leave the store to save yourself from a very embarrassing situation! The same can happen to your dog.
It might not be a tantrum, but you may notice that your dog starts scratching himself, sneezing, yawning, barking or pawing on you. These are often displacement behaviors meant to manifest his confusion, stress or frustration. If you notice any of these, it can be sign that your dog is not ready yet for this level of impulse control. What to do in these cases?
If you know your dog is prone to getting frustrated, you can try making the exercise easier by splitting it in smaller steps or giving frequent rewards under the form of treats (use kibble if high-value treats make your dog impatient) at first when your dog performs the calm behavior and then gradually weaning them off, until your dog can sit and wait for the final reward (eg, getting out the door, going to sniff a bush or eating his meal).
Here's another important tip: to set your dog for success, ensure his needs for exercise and mental stimulation are met before doing these impulse control exercises. If you are struggling getting your dog to calm down or if your dog appears aggressive at any time during these exercises, please consult with a dog trainer/ behavior professional invested in positive reinforcement.
Did you know? Impulse control can be improved courtesy of training and signs of improvement are marked by certain changes occurring in the brain, according to a new Queen's University study.
- Phys.org, Researchers locate impulse control center in brain, retrieved from the web on July 13th, 2016
- Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 3: Procedures and ProtocolsVolume Three Edition
by Steven R Lindsay, Wiley-Blackwell; Volume Three edition (June 15, 2005)
Cross-sectional study of object permanence in domestic puppies (Canis familiaris).
Gagnon, Sylvain; Doré, François Y.Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol 108(3), Sep 1994, 220-232
The Dog Trainer's Resource: The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection (Volume 1)Paperback– August 30, 2006 by Mychelle E. Blake, Dogwise Publishing (August 30, 2006)
Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident DogPaperback– Black & White, 2007, by Leslie McDevitt, Clean Run Productions/CRP (2007)