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How To Teach Your Dog Impulse Control

How To Teach Your Dog Impulse Control

by Beth Ostrowski-Parks, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Teaching your dog “Impulse Control”

It's so important for people to understand that dogs are not born with any impulse control.  If you have a puppy or dog that lacks some training, more then likely teaching him or her some "impulse control" will help solve most of your problems. Does your dog:

  • Jump on guests/or on you
  • Chase the Cat
  • Lung
  • Pull on the Leash
  • Bark at other dogs or people while on leash
  • Counter Surf

The very first way to deal with these and other behavior problems is to first keep those situations from happening!  This is called management.  When solving behavior problems with my clients I use a dog training ethical plan called the acronym, LIMA.

LIMA stands for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive.  As a member of the organizations CCPDT, APDT, IAACB, and the PPG, I agree to follow these ethical standards of helping people fix problems while doing no harm.  Rather than explain the hierarchy of this ethical treatment of dogs, here is a link to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) position statement on LIMA.

Here the first 3 items on the list for the purposes of this article.  Here is the hierarchy which I teach and follow:

  • Health, nutritional, and physical factors -- are there medical, environmental or nutritional factors contributing to the behavior? If so, they should be addressed by a vet.  Always good to rule out medical if you are seeing very new behavior like aggression or house training issues.
  •  Antecedents -- what actually sets off the behavior you are concerned about?
  •  Positive reinforcement -- once you have done what you can to set your dog up for success, you must follow up with positive reinforcement (most often this is treats), in order for the "right" behavior to continue!

In other words, set your dog up for success by taking probably several steps to manage your dog in exciting situations.  Be sure you know what behavior you want out of your dog, then positively reinforce that behavior.  Many impulse control "problems" can be solved JUST by better management but adding the positive reinforcement is the true key.

Remember your dog’s behavior problems aren’t really a problem to your dog!  It’s a problem for you.  So if your dog is allowed to jump and then you scold him for jumping, then you are not setting your dog up for success.  You are actually allowing your dog to practice the behavior over and over again and most important, nothing new is being taught.

Once better management happens, you can then add positive reinforcement for the “right” behavior or the behavior you are looking for.  If we don’t apply positive reinforcement how can your dog understand what you want from him or her?

From the above concerns here is how I would have my clients apply management/antecedent arrangement for:

  • Jumping on guests/owner/children in household
  • Chasing the Cat
  • Puppy Biting

Using a leash inside your home is an excellent way to get your dog’s attention and most important, this will prevent the behavior you are trying to eliminate.  This is such a great way to began working on your problem as it will keep it from happening.
It would look something like this.

For inside the house you will have a special leash (often called a drag line, meaning the dog is dragging the line).  If you enjoy a clean home, you don’t want to use a dragline that you might be using outside.   Just cut the loop off a 6 foot leash and singe the end to prevent it from unraveling.  If you have a small dog a four foot leash might be plenty long enough.

Whenever your dog is loose in the home, and you know something is about to happen that will excite your puppy; i.e., kitty is running by, children coming into the room or perhaps they just got up from sleep the night before, or if you are about to walk across the room and you know your puppy is going to chase your pant leg, you would simply step on or pick up the leash (drag line).  Now you are keeping your dog from going after whatever he is thinking about but here’s the other part of the exercise that is important to the equation!  Have treats on hand for when he doesn’t do the behavior you are trying to reduce.  So he starts to go for the cat, you notice and pick up or step on the lead and when your puppy looks at you in confusion, you reinforce (treat) the attention he is giving you.

Apply this example to your children walking into the room or your spouse coming home from work. 

Of course another way to manage your puppy’s behavior is to use your crate.  A crate shouldn't be used in a reactive way like for punishment, but in a proactive way.  For example:  Your spouse is returning home from work, he or she texts you and then you proactively crate your puppy.  After everyone is home and things are calm, then you can let the pup out.  You may want to have him on a leash though!  And don’t forget about those treats!    I cannot emphasize enough the importance of reinforcing the correct behavior.  Management is not enough to teach new desired behavior.   Positive Reinforcement is also needed.

Here is how management will work for:

  • Lunging
  • Jumping on “Strangers”
  • Pulling on Leash
  • Barking at others while on leash

First:  If you have a severe problem with any of these behaviors, I would recommend a private lesson.  I can even meet with you and your dog out in public to counteract these issues.  Sometimes it’s helpful to see how an experienced dog trainer works with this somewhat dangerous problem.  You will be surprised to see how much food is involved.

When a dog lunges, barks at other dogs or people or just pulls badly on a leash, you have to have the right management tools.  In some cases that is a gentle leader head collar.  There is no tool that works better for this behavior, although there are some breeds that cannot tolerate that harness.

If that is the case, the next best option is the Sensation Harness.
When either of these items is fit properly, they will do wonders in how your dog reacts or is able to react while out on a leash.

When you see someone approaching your first step is to shorten up the leash.  If your dog is 6 feet out in front of you, the chances of you catching him before he jumps is unlikely.  You want to be ready to “keep” him from jumping.  Then, you don’t to find yourself having to react.

You want to be sure you have food with you too.  As I’ve said a few times, it’s important to counter-condition the reaction with awesome treats.  This will call for “better, higher value” treats.  The act of reactivity on a leash is so strong and it actually builds on itself.  Whenever your dog barks or lunges he is learning something you really don’t want him to learn:  how to scare away scary things.  That’s right, it’s highly possible that your dog is reacting to the fight or flight response.  When on leash your dog knows he is “trapped” and so if he cannot flight, he must fight.  If you are having problems with reactivity in your dogs, please consider a consultation with me.  I would love to get you some home for both of you!

Another really helpful part of this is to be sure you are practicing the NLIF training plan. What is NLIF?  Nothing in Life is Free. 

Suggested Homework:
Make a list of ALL the things your dog(s) enjoy.   That could be as small a thing as affection.  It could also be a big thing like their food or the best treats! 

For an example, here is my list of how I believe my dogs rank their reinforcements.  

1) their food (my dogs love their food)
2) agility
3) any treat
4) going for walks
5) going in the "van"
6) getting up on the couch with me
7) cuddling or being pet
8) playing with each other

Your list could be different than my list.  But the key here is to make sure you are asking for your dog to do something before they get something they like or love.  Is it time forhim to eat?    Ask him to “sit” or “down” or “come!”  Time for a treat?  Ask him to sit, down, stay or leave it.

Time to go for a walk?  Ask him to sit before he gets his leash on, and then another sit or down before he goes out the door..

Time for him to get on the couch?  Ask him to sit, down or stay.

Hopefully this is something that you start thinking about daily with your puppy.  Once you start doing this, it will come naturally to you.  Have your dog earn his prizes!  Your puppy will begin to respect you in a different way.  He will start looking to you for permission!

And of course another very important thing to do is to teach your dog what “leave it” means. 

Here is a video on how to teach your dog Leave It.

In my online Basic Manners class, I have this video and many others.  Leave-It is first taught and then you can add "proofing" which we also do in the course. To get more, check out my course here.

Practice makes perfect.  Put all of these things to work and before you know it you will have the well-behaved dog you are striving for!