Although the behavior can be called many things (inhibitory, emotional, and self-regulation), it is commonly used in dog training. Dogs can resist the temptation of performing an undesirable behavior that could give them access to a reinforcement – they can control their impulses.
Like children, puppies don’t have impulse control from birth. It must be taught and encouraged. It is worth your time to teach your dog impulse control. Dogs learn to manage their behavior and we can enjoy our dogs without feeling like we have to control them.
Humans don’t usually consider a dog lacking in self-control unless he exhibits behaviors that are not acceptable to them. Dogs who do things such as jump up on people, grab food from their owners’ hands, and eat off the counter or coffee table (counter surfing), are often considered to lack impulse control. Dogs who do these things are merely helping themselves to food, contact with people, freedom or any other item or toy.
Most dogs are able to learn to resist the urge to get these things with relative ease if their owners practice several impulse-control behaviors that are often taught in force-free training, such as Wait, Leave-It and Polite Greeting.
Although we dog trainers are passionate about teaching dogs how to behave, “Wait” is a useful behavior that I have taught my dogs. It’s also my favorite impulse control exercise. Contrary to a “Stay”, which is a command to “Stay in this exact position and don’t move until I tell,” “Wait” can be used more casually to indicate “Pause.”
Use a food bowl to teach “Wait”. This allows you to have one to two training sessions per day, depending on how often your dog is fed. The concept of “wait” can be extended to include waiting at doors or other situations where your dog needs to be in control. For example, not running to greet the elderly with a walker or grabbing the hotdog from the toddler’s hands. Here are some ways to teach it.
1. Tell your dog to sit down and wait. If she is highly food-motivated, you can give her treats, but for reinforcement, the higher-value treats will make a better impression.
You should hold the bowl at her shoulder so that it is not directly below her nose. Then mark her “pause!” with a clicker, or verbal marker like the word “Yes!” Take a treat from the bowl and give it to her.
If she stands up and you click, say “Oops! Sit!” and then try again.
After clicking and treating, if she does not get up, you can ask her to sit down again. You can repeat this several times and tell her to “Wait!”
2. Hold the bowl about shoulder-level and tell her to “Wait!” then lower it a bit. Mark her (with a click, or “Yes!”) if she is still sitting. Then quickly raise the bowl up and then give the treat to her.
If your child gets up after you lower the bowl, raise it again.
3. Gradually lower your bowl, starting at shoulder height, and telling her to “Wait” every time. Repeat this several times before moving lower. If she gets two “Oops!” after each step, it’s too fast. Slowly lower the bowl and go back to where she can succeed.
4. Once the bowl is all the way down to the ground, place it on the table, click and then pick it up again before you give your dog the treat. You can repeat this several times and tell your dog to “Wait!” If she attempts to grab the bowl, be ready to quickly raise it!
5. Next, place the bowl on the ground. Click, but don’t forget to feed the treat. Continue repeating this process several times.
6. Tell her to “Wait”, place the bowl on the ground, click and treat and then tell her that she can have it!
Dogs with better self-control might be able to “get it” in a single session. Dogs who are more easily influenced by their impulses might need to practice for several days before the bowl is placed on the floor. You and your dog should practice for as long as possible at each mealtime. After that, you can just let the bowl go on the floor and say “Okay, you can have it!”
You will eventually be able ask her to wait while the bowl is placed on the ground.
This exercise requires you to wear shoes! You can teach your dog to “Leave It” by showing your dog a tasty treat and letting her see you place it under your shoes. It’s not a threat, it’s a cue. You can wait while she attempts to lick the treat or paw it.
When a dog has something in her mouth, I use “Trade”. For more information on how to get your dog to give you what you want, see “Protocol to Teaching a Safe Trade with Your Dog,” May 2020. For any random object that my dog wants, I teach her “Leave It”.
1. You will show your dog that you have a high value “forbidden object” in you hand. She won’t be able to have it. These freeze-dried liver cubes are durable and high-value. You can let her smell it, lick it and even nibble on it. But don’t allow her to have it.
2. As you raise the cube, say “Leave it!” and then place it on the ground under your foot to protect it. Note: You should wear sturdy shoes. This should not be done barefoot, in sandals or in the most expensive shoes.
3. Allow your dog to sniff, lick and nibble the treat under your feet. Your dog might even try to paw at your shoes (hence the no-sandals and bare feet recommendation). Tip your toe forward if she can reach the cube underneath your shoe with her tongue.
You just have to wait for her to give up. Give her a delicious treat when she stops looking away, sniffing, or licking the treat. You may find that she is more comfortable with this behavior and you can move your foot away while still having her “leave it”.
4. Wait. Do not repeat the cue. She will eventually stop responding. If she looks away or stops sniffing, licking or snorting, mark her (click your clicker, use a verbal marker, such as “Yes!”) and offer her a delicious treat. You can expect her to return to the forbidden object under you foot immediately. Wait a bit more. Do not repeat the cue. If she turns away, mark her and give another treat.
5. Mark-and-treat her again if possible before her nose comes back to your foot. It is important to emphasize “Look-away”, “Look-away”, “Look-away”, “Look-away”, “Look-away,” not “Look at foot, look away, look away, look away, look away,”
6. After several repetitions, take the cube and show it to your partner. Next, use the “Leave It!” cue to place the cube under your foot.
7. If she is unable to look away from the cube, you can move your foot to expose the treat. You can give her multiple mark-and-treats so long as her nose does not return to the treat. She is rewarded for not looking at the cube, even though it appears accessible. Keep your foot close to the cube! To stop your dog from diving for food, you can cover it with your toes. If she turns away, mark/treat her again.
8. To get your dog’s attention if she ignores the object, tap your toe on the ground next to the object. But be quick to clean it up! You don’t want your dog to just look at the cube once she is done looking.
9. You’ll eventually see your dog’s “Aha!” moment. This is the moment when your dog truly understands what you are doing. Leave It is when your dog looks at the treat and takes a moment to consider it. Then she will look up at you anticipating the treat. Celebrate!
10. Next, place the forbidden item on the floor. Do not cover it with your feet. Continue repeating this process until the forbidden object is visible on the floor.
You can now apply Leave It to real-life situations. (For more information on generalizing the behavior, please see “How To Teach A Dog to ‘Leave It” June 2018.
This is an important behavior to control impulses in any dog’s life. You must not reinforce your dog for jumping up. And you should also make sure that the rest of the world doesn’t reinforce her! You can reinforce Sit with lots of praise if she is doing something incompatible. If she jumps up, you can turn your back and walk away. Or, you can go into another room and close that door.
The tether was necessary to teach this dog to stop jumping on children. He had a history of being reinforced for jumping on children (and licking and biting them). He was eventually able to sit down when he wanted greet a child after he was stopped from reaching them.
1. Your dog should be tethered to something solid. Slowly approach your dog and wait for her to sit. Then mark her spot with a clicker, or verbal marker, and then give her a treat. You can always move away from her reach if she jumps up. Not that we told you to say “Sit,” but we want her to be able to think about and offer this behavior on her own. She shouldn’t wait for a cue. To help her sit, use body language (such a leaning back or lifting your hands towards your chest) and quickly fade this gesture. You don’t need to use your usual cue for Sit.
2. You will gradually increase her energy as she sits for you when you approach her. She will continue to sit until you let her go.
3. Now, apply the behavior to all people. Have another person walk your dog with a leash. You will instruct them to calmly approach them and to tell them to back off if they jump up. If she is politely sitting at your feet, you can mark her and give her a treat for it. They can then pet and greet her, but remind her to get up if she moves.
If you wish, you can make it a point to have people approach her and give her a treat. However, they must understand that she will get up and move on if they don’t.
You can place any treats that you use to reinforce on-the mat behavior on the mat. This will make your dog realize that the mat is a reward place. You can give your dog higher-value treats each time she lies down. She will be more likely to offer downs frequently, which is great!
The “place mat” is an excellent addition to your force-free training program. Place mats can be any type of blanket, rug, or portable rug that your dog can use to lay down on. Training your dog will be easier if the mat is comfortable.
Your dog will learn to sit on her mat and this can help you control impulses at home, as well as in unfamiliar environments that may have arousal-causing distractions. Here are some ways to teach the behavior.
1. You can hold your dog’s mat, show interest in it and talk about it.
2. Place the mat on the ground. You should have a variety of high-value and medium-value treats. Mark the mat and place a treat of medium value on it for your dog when he or she looks at it.
3. Mark for mat-related behavior (except for grabbing it or playing with it). Each time you mark, place a treat of medium value on the mat.
4. Any on-the mat-behaviors, (OTMBs), are eligible for a mark-and treat. However, if she offers to down, she will get a high-value treat. Other OTMBs are still eligible for medium-value treats. Keep marking any OTMBs and occasionally calling her “Down” to get her off the mat. Give her high-value treats if she does.
5. After cueing, marking, and treating a few random downs, take a moment to pause and observe if she offers you a down if she isn’t being marked for any other behavior. If she does, mark her and give her high-value treats. Mark any OTMBs she does not want and give her a variety of high-value treats. Deliver high-value treats to downs, and medium-value treats to other behaviors.
6. Continue to repeat step 5, until your dog starts offering downs during your pauses. Your dog is now learning that downs are more rewarding. Your dog should be able to offer only downs on the mat. Other behaviors will still earn medium rewards.
7. Give your dog a cue to release, then move a little away from the mat. Now invite her to come with you. If she follows you, give her a release cue and ask her to stand still. Most dogs will come back to you on the mat for more treats. If she does not, you can go back to Step 5. Start marking and treating her again, using medium-value treats to reward any behavior and high-value treats to treat downs. Reward her for coming back to the mat. While downs can be great if they occur, it is important to reward any OTMBs. Gradually increase the distance between you and the mat.
8. You can increase the time by increasing it slowly – just a few seconds each time she returns to the mat. If she does not get off the mat immediately, you can pick up the mat and ignore her for a moment, then place it down again.
9. If your dog is willing to lie down on her mat for a prolonged period of time, add “Mat,” or “Place” to your cue. You can practice sending your dog to her mat from farther distances, and eventually from any place in the house.
10. Add distractions to generalize the behavior. Begin with the basics: jump once, jump twice and clap your hand. Gradually move up to college-level distractions such as kids running around the house, dropping food on floor, and then PhD work. Doorbells will ring, visitors enter, and any other activities that may challenge your dog’s self control. Once she is comfortable with distractions in her home, you can take it on the road and apply it to the rest.
Sometimes, your dog may get excited when you give it a stimulus. Dogs can get excited when the leash is pulled out. It is a reliable indicator that good things are about to happen. Asking them for a calm down is counterproductive. They will jump around and get even more excited when you interact with them. I use the word “Oops!” to indicate that they don’t get reinforcement – in fact, it makes the good stuff disappear …” so I remove the chance for reinforcement.
When my dog jumps, I hold the leash in my hands and say “Oops!” before laying the leash on the table. Then I sit down. If I were holding a toy, I would say “Oops!” and either hide it behind my back, or turn away. I would say “Oops!” when I opened the door and then walk away.
Your dog will be able to remain calm while you hold the leash, open the door, or pick up the toy. This is an indication that she can use impulse control to control her excitement to make good things happen.
Note: “Oops” is my preferred choice over “eh eh” as some trainers use. It’s hard to say “Oops!” in an aggressive tone of voice and “eh eh” can sound quite nasty. It is not intended to intimidate or anger the dog.
Your goal? Your goal? To teach your dog how to manage her behavior so that you can live together harmoniously in a relationship of mutual trust, love, and respect.
Dog Impulse Control Training Whole