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Real-World Solutions to Dog Training Challenges: Impulse Control (Part One)

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Let’s face it, if dogs were born with a strong foundation of self-control, well, they wouldn’t really be dogs, would they? That said, darting out the door, bolting down the street, going after someone or grabbing food can result in catastrophic consequences! It’s important for us to teach our dogs that, in some situations, slow and steady pays off. In this two-part series, we’ll walk you through how to do just that.  

So, how can you teach your inquisitive canine impulse control? 

  1. First, unless your dog, another dog, or a person are in danger, stop and reflect. Appreciate who your dog is and take a moment to relish in her zest for life! (We could learn a few things from our dogs!) 
  2. Second, figure out what it is you want your pup to do (when she sees an open door, a scrumptious treat, etc.) and then teach her the skills she needs for success. An initial step in any dog training plan is determining what it is you want your dog to do. What is your Normal Rockwell picture of doggy domestic bliss? 
  3. Lastly, manage your environment to help prevent your dog from engaging in unwanted or unsafe behaviors. 

Now, let’s apply the concepts of reflection, training, and management to two common impulsive behaviors: door dashing and grabbing treats. 

Door Dashing

Reflect – If there’s one human habit I wish we could teach our inquisitive canines, it would be to look both ways before crossing the street! But, because this concept is lost on doggos, it’s up to us to keep them safe. Training the right behaviors and humanely managing the environment are paramount. 

Teach – Start with picturing what you want to happen at an open door. Will Fido be greeting someone as the door opens? Are you just receiving a package from a delivery person? Are you leaving the house without your canine sidekick? 

Cues that can be used for any of these scenarios are “Stay” and “Wait.” Yes, they are similar, but you can teach both so your pup has a richer behavior vocabulary and repertoire. 

For me personally, and what I teach clients, is to use Stay for when I want Fido to stay put while others move about. The Wait cue is used for when the person and dog are going together. For instance, if Fido and I are about to walk out the door together, I would use Wait at the open door. If I were opening the door to let someone in or to receive a package, and I want Fido to stay put, I would use Stay. You can use whichever cue you want, just keep it consistent. 

To help accommodate a variety of possible situations, you can also teach your pup to target a mat or bed and then cue him to Stay there. As training progresses, you can gradually start manipulating the 3-D’s: distance, duration and distractions. Perhaps, move the location of the mat — further away from the door when you need to leave, closer to the door when someone is coming in – for example. With practice, you’ll be able to use the “Go to your Place” cue whenever the doorbell rings and Fido will have something to do that is incompatible with charging the door!

Manage – Managing the environment is important, whether you’re actively training or not — because sometimes we humans get distracted too! 

If a group of folks are entering the home, one option is to keep your dog on leash farther away from the door. You can also use a crate, enclosed area, or other room to house Fido while guests arrive, when they leave or if you’re preoccupied while various people are coming and going. 

If the door is left open for pure ventilation or aesthetic reasons, install a screen door or baby gate. However, even with partial barriers that prevent your inquisitive canines from gallivanting into the street, you’ll still need to train them to know what to do when they see outdoor distractions, such as that sprinting squirrel or curious cat. And please make sure your screen or gate is strong enough and tall enough that your precious pet can’t bolt through it or jump over it! 

Grabbing Treats

Reflect – Ah yes, dogs who act like sharks! This is often normal dog behavior, especially if the food item is of higher value, but those hard mouths can be tough on our tender human hands! 

Teach – One way to teach dogs to take treats gently is to hand-feed them their meals — or at least part of the meal. If you feed wet food only, then choose a healthy treat or other type of approved food that comes in smaller pieces. Kibble, dry treats, small pieces of carrots or green peas are some examples. Then follow these steps:

  • Holding one piece at a time, enclose it in your hand and present it to your dog — keep the piece of food covered so he can’t grab it. 
  • Fido will likely try to take the food from you, mouthing, licking, and even pawing. 
  • Keep your hand closed and be patient. 
  • As soon as your dog “gives up” and pulls his mouth (and/or paw) away from your hand, present the food with an open palm. 
  • Rinse and repeat. 
  • With time, your dog will soon learn to have some control and wait for the “reward” to be presented, as opposed to just grabbing it willy-nilly. 
  • Once your dog is waiting patiently, allowing you to present the morsel, you can then add a cue word such as “Gentle” before presenting a treat. 
  • Keep in mind, to help your pup generalize this skill you’ll need to practice with varied types of treats, some lower value, some higher value. 
  • Also, practice in different contexts (varying times, locations, etc.) and then with different (willing) people offering treats and rewarding “Gentle.”

Manage – Gamification is a great way to reinforce dogs for being patient and making good choices. The training skills game of Airplane, also known as the Elevator Game, is a dog training exercise that addresses impulse control. The handler presents a treat to the dog. If the dog chooses to attempt to grab the treat, the handler moves her hand further from the dog. If the dog chooses to wait patiently, the handler moves her hand towards the dog. The game is designed to teach dogs to wait politely, as opposed to jumping up, knocking someone over, and/or grabbing fingers or hands.    

Harnessing Your Efforts

Self-control is important for dogs to learn not only for good manners, but also for survival and injury prevention – for people and pets! The goal is to help your inquisitive canine slow things down so he or she can think before reacting instinctively. Best of all, teaching these life skills while having fun will help enhance your bond.

Here’s to bringing out the best in our best friends! 

In Part Two of this post, we will look at how the concepts of reflection, teaching and management can help pups who struggle with greeting other dogs and people a bit too enthusiastically when on leash. 

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