Impulse Control

Thank you to this week’s guest blogger Jennifer Skiba, Westminster, CO who shares training tips that will make living with your Gordon Setter easier.

You know, reading this I realized that if anyone had taught me impulse control I wouldn’t have that half eaten box of Turtle candy sitting on my kitchen counter. However, on the plus side, Sara hasn’t been counter surfing as usual, otherwise they’d be totally gone. At least one of us has learned impulse control.

Jennifer SIf I could teach only one thing to dog owners it would be to understand the importance of teaching their dog impulse control. Impulse control is an incredibly valuable life skill for your dog to have and yet is one of the skills I find most dogs lack. When people think of a “good dog” what they are really noticing is a dog with good impulse control. It is a dog who doesn’t jump on people, who doesn’t steal food, who doesn’t pull on the leash, etc. These are all behaviors that require the dog to have impulse control, to wait. How does the dog learn to wait? To feel an impulse and decide not to act on it? Through lots and lots of practice.

Impulse games teach your dog to feel an impulse to want to do something but to not do it, or to look for permission before doing it. Many trainers teach this as a “leave it” command but I prefer to teach it as a default behavior. Meaning the dog automatically defaults to waiting instead of snatching food. This isn’t about micro managing your dog. This is about teaching them to think before they act. This isn’t just for food either, if done correctly it teaches the dog to look for permission and will be a foundation for other behaviors that don’t involve food. Impulse control is a foundational behavior of all of the advanced behaviors that people recognize as hallmarks of a “good dog”.

So, how do I teach impulse control? I start with the dog’s food and some treats and I teach them that the way to get the treat is to not want the treat anymore. That is the basic behavior. Once they understand that I challenge them over and over again with the same exercise in different contexts. This is called proofing a behavior, what that means is I am helping my dog to generalize the behavior. This allows the dog to access the behavior even if it’s not exactly the same as the last time. Here are two videos that I made that show phase 1 and phase 2 of impulse control.

Impulse Control – Part 1 video

Impulse Control – Part 2 video

A progression of challenges might look like this:

  • Treats in a closed hand
  • Treats in an open hand
  • Treats on the floor
  • Treats dropped on the floor
  • Snapping turtle
  • The dog’s food bowl
  • Treats on the dog’s paw
  • Treats I find when I walk into a room and they are on the floor already
  • Treats on the coffee table, picnic table or dining room table
  • People food (start easy with crackers or bread)
  • People food that is harder (cheese or lunch meat)
  • People food that is on a table surface
  • The above challenges outside (backyard, front yard, porch)
  • “Treats” in the real world (goose poop)

Non-food related impulse control behaviors:

  • Not greeting other dogs
  • Being calm around other dogs
  • Not jumping on people
  • Not begging
  • Not stealing food from children
  • Not counter surfing
  • Staying
  • Waiting
  • Walking politely on leash
  • Waiting for you to throw a toy
  • Not stealing kids toys/shoes
  • Not stealing your shoes

I start to teach this with food because generally all dogs want food. Once they understand the behavior with food I can change it to other items like a toy. The key to having good impulse control is LOTS of practice in LOTS of different contexts. If you take the time to teach your dog to wait without having to say “wait” all the time (or “leave it”) you will find that your dog is a joy to live with. You aren’t having to watch their every movement and they understand that waiting is the first choice they should offer.

Jennifer Skiba, Westminster, CO

Namastay Training   www.NamastayTraining.com

“Teaching People to Listen, One Dog at a Time”

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