Impulse Control, is pretty much as it sounds - puppies and some (too many, perhaps?) adult dogs lack an appropriate amount of impulse control a.k.a good manners. Once a dog has learned impulse control, quite literally everything which follows is much easier and tends to come along at a much quicker rate. We humans tend to make raising a puppy much more complicated than it needs to be.
Impulse control could even be called distraction management, but that is even more to say and type, either way it is a skill which will help a dog to concentrate and remain focused to a task, be it running an agility course, going your local pub to chill, running some field work, and all points in between. Teaching dogs this skill isn’t harsh, but it does require consistency.
I’m guessing you have taken a moment to see how long this article is and might be thinking about jumping ship because you think you might not need to read all of this. I’ll make you a deal. You are free and clear unless you answer yes to one or more of the following questions. If you do, you need to make some time and read the whole thing. Here we go: Do you find yourself competing for your dog’s attention? Is your dog easily distracted by other dogs or people? Is he more likely to follow his nose than you? Does noise or movement get him excited? I’m not a gambling man, but I’m guessing you are with me for the long haul, so I’ll try to make this easy.
You answered yes, so let’s get started.
Like most undertakings, start with realistic goals. You’ll need to break the process down into bite-sized pieces to keep from becoming discouraged or putting undue pressure on your pup. Secondly, you don’t need any special tools or skills. If you can say ‘yes’ with a smile on your face and can stock some ‘high value’ treats you are all set.
Since I mentioned ‘high value’ treats let’s take a quick sidebar to be sure we are on the same sheet of music. You can’t be offering your dog kibble or frankly most of the over-priced stuff offered at the pet store as it just isn’t good enough (unless of course you need a low value treat…). I prefer to use hot dogs; you could use string cheese. I split them lengthwise with two cuts (making three pieces), then rotating 90 degrees and making two more cuts (making nine pieces). From there these hot dog strips get cut perpendicular to make as many little squarish pieces as I can get. Basically, anything approaching the size of a pencil eraser is too big. Training treats do not need to be big to be useful, they need to be small, tasty, something the dog can just ‘inhale’, and be very compelling for the dog!
First Step, The Name Game:
Alrighty, let’s start small by having your pup nearby and your high value treats in a small pouch by your side. You will begin the Name Game. Take your puppy and go to a quiet place devoid of distraction, say pups name. When he looks at you, say ‘yes’ immediately and treat him – that’s it. It’s just that easy. If pup looks around a bit before he looks at you, that is okay. Just be sure to expect this, and only say ‘yes’ and treat once he does. If you need to repeat his name, you can, but be calm and wait a few seconds before repeating. You must refrain from using a machine gun burst of his name. Once he understands looking to you gets him a reward, do the exercise with him a few more times. As he improves, you can gradually add some distraction in the distance, use things that aren’t too enticing for him and as he progresses with the Name Game, you can ‘up’ the distraction. This is applied in the same way with all the exercises I am going to talk about here. In the early weeks of training don’t be shy with “loading the name” as many trainers call it, which means once he really gets it, and holding your eye, you can pump him up with a few extra treats and even add some verbal praise. Once he becomes bulletproof consistent with the Name Game, start to break up treating him by make treating him inconsistent and then less and less frequent. Be sure to always reward him with a ‘yes’, in the early stages and as you taper the food reward. You can always affirm his correct/appropriate response with a happy ‘yes’ as you see fit. The key to how this method of training works is giving pup a chance to decide on their own and making it easy for the pup to decide that following your lead is the way to go. The ‘Name Game’ has has a few layers, besides teaching pup to look to you when his name is said. Eventually his name can act as a preparatory ‘command’ of sorts by letting him know something else is likely to follow. But for now, we just need to see how this progresses. Ultimately, pup might figure the game out quickly and decide to become pushy about his treat, this too is a great situation and learning opportunity for pup. Always say ‘yes’ when he looks at you, but only treat pup when he is calm and looking at you (standing or sitting, whichever is what you want to reinforce). If he is being pushy just be calm, say and do nothing, simply wait him out. Give him a ‘yes’ once he calms and treat. Eventually you will want to extend the amount of time pup needs to look at you before being treated. There is no real need to set aside special training time to do this, just a moment of deliberate thought and preparation is all that is needed. As pup progresses with this exercise, try new locations, and gradually introduce a few distractions. We want to strengthen and generalize this association.
Getting more from the Name Game…
Bonus round one! While playing the Name Game, you may find that your pup chooses to move closer to you and offer to sit for you. Bookmark this, for after he has gotten a solid grip on the Name Game. Then one day, just as pup offers his ‘sit’, give him the verbal cue (aka for you Old Schoolers out there, the command, sit), once he has sat, say ‘yes’ and treat. You are now beginning to build a new association. If you happen to not have treats with you, you will always have your ‘yes’ handy. Remember, with Name Game play, you have built an association with ‘yes’ and he knows and associates ‘yes’ with praise and reward. This is what I like to call ‘knocking ‘em down’. All these skills are all dovetailed together and building on one another making each skill easier to teach the next. Please resist your temptation to tussle pups ears and rub him up excitedly. This only adds energy to the situation, and most likely to get pup bouncing around, or even more depending on how reactive your dog is. Remember we are teaching him how to be good citizen here – to be calm, assured, and pleasant. Your dog will tend to mirror the energy you are putting out.
Getting pup out the front door
Like having a toddler, with a pup, you need to plan to get ready before you intend to be ready…this gives you the upper hand. It gives you the time to do what is necessary; to be consistent, set the pup up to win and you to be the victor. All without needing to flex a single muscle! So, you want to take pup for a ‘Leader Walk’, or load him into the car… Go to the door and grab your leash. Odds are pup will begin to bounce around like a fool. If you were in a rush, you’d be grabbing at him, telling him to sit fifteen or twenty times, and maybe even get a little bit frustrated. If so, all you have taught your dog in that moment is to act like a fool and that preparing to go is a game where not listening is okay. The Leader Way would be to approach the door and grab the leash. Turn to the pup and wait. Don’t say a word, do not encourage anything. You could say calmly, ‘when you’re ready’ or my favorite, ‘what do good dogs do?’ – honestly it doesn’t matter what you say, what’s more important is your tone of voice. Odds are he will react by calming down and possibly sitting. Be prepared. If he hasn’t built an association with going out the door, you could just say his name and see what happens, if you are well into the Name Game and starting his sit work. Either way, once pup is nearby and offering a sit, say ‘sit’. Follow-up with ‘yes’ and then gently attach his leash. If your movement is too much for the situation, just start from the top and take your time. It will not be long; he will sit calmly and allow you to leash him and without fanfare head out. Now he has learned how to go through the door and that you are in charge.
Thoughts on Shaping & Luring. One hand washes the other and back.
He will also begin to associate his actions with rewards and verbal cues and later on verbal cues with actions. Yup, the dog is training himself, and you are only facilitating the experience. A big part of your job as handler is to simplify situations by removing distractions and thereby improving the likelihood of pup making the correct association you are intending to make. Offering toys while pup is excited, talking excitedly or yelling, and moving your arms to push pup away when pup is jumping up, only serve to muddle your message and add energy to the situation – making it more difficult to get the desired outcome. Additionally, blurting out random or rapidly fired repeated ‘commands’ (E.g. sit, sit, sit, sit, sit - you’ve seen it, and likely been guilty of doing so) and telling pup ‘no’ to just about any and everything is as equally as futile (and useless). ‘No’ isn’t a command: sit, here, down, stand, leave it, place, kennel all are commands, but only after the association has been made. Remember, the key here is to catch pup doing what you want and offering an affirmation to build the association you desire.
Claiming Space, not as advanced of a move as you might think:
If you have been following the Dutch Dog Blog, you know we are big fans of the Higgins Method. Part of the Higgins method of associative dog learning is Claiming Space, and this can have a rather surprising and profound impact of how a dog chooses to manage its energy. Claiming Space ties into teaching your dog impulse control. You will do this during a Leader Walk (detailed below) with pup, but you can also Claim Space in your home, and doing so can really simplify a few things. At mealtime how does pup behave? Is he like a rubber ball that has been launched into an empty swimming pool, bouncing, spinning and acting a fool? Even if you have been blessed in this area, Claiming Space is another exercise to help pup build control and focus. For pups that are pure crazy sauce, you will want not do this at mealtime starting out. You need to build success, not failure. Place pup’s kennel in a place where you can put a chair about an arm’s reach and squarely in front of. Put pup in his kennel and close the door. Remain sitting in front of the kennel, with the door latched, and wait for pup to become calm. This can look many different ways, but ideally, he will lay down and maybe even go to sleep. After calm has been achieved, open the door, but don’t allow pup to bolt out. Be sure to square your shoulders with the opening of the kennel, keep your head in a neutral position (at first) and use your hand to, as gently as possible, give pup a push to keep him in the kennel if required. No word needs to be said. He may be persistent, and you may need to be firm. You will need to be resolute, and you may need to lower your chin, giving yourself a little more of a serious posture. In most cases after a few attempts, pup will simply lay down and accept being in the kennel with the door standing wide open. This is when you can start a conversation with your friend of family member if you have someone nearby – always being attentive of pup. He may try to sneak out on you, and you will need to arrest this, but more than likely you will find he will simply remain in place. If so, perfect! Let him rest a while, then you can let pup know he may leave his kennel. From now on, when you open the door, the door opening is no longer the cue to bolt out. His cue is your release word. Consider using ‘okay’ or ‘let’s go’, some like ‘free dog’. In the beginning you will need to vary the amount of time the door is opened before offering the cue. The association we broke is door opening = bolt. The association we built and want to maintain is your cue = you may politely exit your house.
Applying all of this to mealtime to create more Impulse Control.
You have now Claimed Space in your home. Pup knows that when you are in front of him, that space is yours. Let’s help him understand this further. I’m guessing you have a carpet in the area where you feed your dog, if not you will want one as it will make this easier for pup to understand. Using all of the things we have talked about so far: the Name Game, the polite offer to sit or stand, and space claiming, pup knows to be on that carpet and knows that he must be there once his food bowl is in play. This will need to be done in small steps, but can be accomplished rather quickly if you have worked up to it… At first the bowl is placed near to the pup once he is calm and ready. Plan on using a similar stance you used with the crate and need to gently claim the space in front of pup where you intend to place his food bowl. Initially the waiting period should only be a second or two, give him a release pat on the flank (later you may build in a verbal cue) and let him enjoy his meal. As this exercise progresses, you may add time and or distance to help build the pup’s focus and association of waiting for your release.
The effectiveness of teaching ‘leave it’
We mentioned teaching ‘Leave It’ near to the beginning of this article. So now let’s spend a little bit of time on the concept. ‘Leave It’ can be taught passively and is a simple variation of what we have been doing so far. Start by putting a lower value treat in your hand e.g. some kibble, then as success builds work towards using your ‘high value’ treats! Begin by having your pup sit or lay down. Whichever you choose, the dog should remain in posture for the duration of the exercise. Have a modest handful of treats in your off hand. Start by holding your baited hand open and above the dog’s line of sight as well as being a few feet away. You sit calmly and if pup stretches towards the treats, simply close your hand. Once pup has relaxed, re-open your hand to start the exercise over. If instead of investigating your baited hand and he looks at you, say ‘yes’ then take a treat from the baited hand and reward him. As the game progresses, the baited hand gradually moves closer and lower to pup. Please note, once the treats get at or below line of sight this game will get much more difficult for pup to maintain posture, so be mindful to not progress too rapidly. You do not want pup to be able to raid your baited hand and self-reward. You should always quickly and quietly close your hand anytime pup shows interest in the baited hand. Some dogs will learn this quickly, others may need several sessions. Once pup has this pretty good you can up the value of the reward and then when pup goes for the baited hand simply add the cue ‘leave it’ when you need to close your hand. Reward once pup looks to you for guidance and/or praise. If your dog really struggles to stay in place to make this exercise possible you may need to recruit a helper to hold his leash. Again, the intent is to set pup up for a win.
Teaching pup to Settle:
Some dogs are naturally pretty chill, but most need a bit of assistance with learning how, and more importantly when to hit the ‘off switch’. Being reactive or overly excitable isn’t much fun for anyone, to include pup. This really comes down to teaching pup a ‘place command’. This can be his kennel, a bed (in one or more locations), or your sofa – it only matters to you. Pup will chill out pretty much any ol’ place. Figure out where you want pup to go. Generally speaking, you will lure pup to his spot using your ‘high value’ treat and once he offers the behavior you desire (lay down), calmly reward and give the ‘command’ you have decided on what that is to be i.e. ‘bed’ or ‘place’ once pup has made it to the targeted place, reinforce with ‘yes’ immediately and treat as soon as you can. Like most things this can progress quickly. To increase the challenge, slowly wean him from being lured into place and then create more and more distance from his ‘place’ when you give the command.
It is never too late to start teaching this stuff, but the sooner the better (and easier) as you might expect. Here are some additional resources on teaching impulse control to the distracted dog. I hope you find them helpful. A dog with a greater ability to concentrate, and stay on task will make everything you currently do easier and make all those plans you have for the future not just possible but easier as well.
The Brad Higgins Leader Walk method: http://www.twogunkennels.com/dutch-dog-blog/teach-your-dog-to-walk-nicely
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I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Forty some years later this is what you get.