Although we would all love to say that we have perfect impulse control, chances are there are things around which we cannot control ourselves. The same can be said about dogs, which have a more difficult time learning self-control anyway.
With a bubbly personality and a nose that loves taking it places — a dog simply gives in to its impulses without thinking twice about it. On most days, that’s perfectly fine — we all want happy, free-thinking pets. But the trouble starts as soon as they start wreaking havoc because of their lack of self-control.
Fortunately, the following 12 impulse control dog training secrets are the tips every dog owner out there should learn by heart. Reinforced by experts and praised by owners who have already gone through impulse control training with their pups, this is how you’ll get into the right mindset and raise an obedient pet.
Living in the moment — how humans and dogs learn impulse control differently
Impulses tend to guide us through life. In fact, it’s safe to say that our minds are easily persuaded by all sorts of things, especially when what we want appears higher on our imaginary wish lists than what we really need.
However, other adults offer us guidance throughout life and help us manage our impulses. Thus, we gain impulse control, which is a highly valued trait in the 21st century.
Dogs, on the other hand, cannot be taught impulse control by their parents. Sure, their mothers can try, but in the end, their main concern is to survive in the human world. That’s why we have to help them get to a point where self-control feels good and rewarding.
The only issue is that implementing the right techniques requires a bit of time. We have to start with young puppies, but not too young furballs. The attention span of a month-old pup is just too short, and in the end, we might get frustrated. The right time to start is around the two-month mark. Dogs are sort of like sponges then, but not too unruly to manage.
With that in mind and with a clear understanding of what impulse control is, let’s see the training secrets that can help us through this process.
- Learn how to calm yourself first
- Automatic responses are key
- If at first, you don’t succeed- keep going
- Dogs always have food in mind-use this to your advantage
- Practice changing the direction of the situation
- Be patient and learn how to wait
- Never punish or reward bad behavior
- Daily exercise can eliminate frequent impulse-guided episodes
- Don’t overwhelm your dog
- Use impulse training in everyday activities
- Your dog has to trust you first
- Learn your dog’s body language
Impulse Control Dog Training Secret #1: Learn how to calm yourself first
Just like children, dogs can sense when we’re angry, sad, happy, or annoyed. They will often try to help us through those feelings by cuddling up to us or just being plain old goofy.
However, when trying to teach a dog impulse control, it’s of the utmost importance not to get frustrated. That would only let dogs know that we’re not happy with them, which could result in them being just as frustrated as we are. Furthermore, annoyance leads to shouting and punishment, which is NEVER to be used when training a dog — or because of anything else, for that matter.
These creatures depend on us, that’s for sure. But we also have to show them respect and kindness, especially when they’re young. They don’t know any better, and us yelling commands at them won’t make them learn faster.
#2: Automatic responses are key
The goal of impulse control dog training is, of course, to have an obedient pet. But, if we were to split hairs here, we should try to nurture automatic responses so that they become not just habits but a behavioral pattern.
An automatic response would be if a dog immediately sits when we tell it to sit. Another example would be a dog that hears a doorbell and calmly stands by the door; a dog that doesn’t start barking as soon as it hears the doorbell or the sound of keys going into the lock.
These automatic responses are important if we want to help the dog respond well to triggers in the future. It’s no use to us if the dog can sit down when we tell it to sit down. It should view times of potential territorial disruption (for example, when we’re having guests over) as something normal; something they shouldn’t react to aggressively or impulsively.
#3: If at first you don’t succeed — try again
The most important thing about impulse control dog training is to stay consistent. Nothing happens overnight — the dog cannot possibly learn self-control through just a few sessions. You have to keep repeating patterns, waiting for the dog to pick up on the cues, and reward it when it does something right.
However, this doesn’t mean you should repeat commands. In fact, that would just add to the growing frustration of the puppy in question. You ought to say the command once, wait for the dog to do it, and reward it if it does. Saying “sit..sit…sit, sit, sit” will add to the urgency of the situation, of course, but it won’t do much for impulse control.
#4: Dogs always have food on their mind — use that to your advantage
Although treats should always be treats and not something the dog gets to have instead of a proper meal, you can still use them as an incentive for the dog to practice self-control. A great exercise that involves different dog biscuits would be the “closed hand” one.
The dog will see that you have a treat in your hand and immediately run to it. If you close the hand, it will have to stop OR try to get it from you either way. If you say “wait” or “sit,” it should calm down until you’re ready to open your hand again. But even then, the dog shouldn’t run to the treat immediately. It has to wait for your cue — something like “OK, you can have it now.”
#5: Practice changing the direction of the situation
Most of us are fairly good at “railing it in” in times of trouble, and some might even stay as cool as a cucumber in stressful situations. However, if you’re not one of those people, it would be helpful for both you and the dog to practice impulse control through some scenarios.
For example, you could use your panic voice (you know you have it) when there are no triggers around. Have your dog on the leash, but keep it loose, and then create an artificial environment in which nothing’s happening — but the dog doesn’t know that. Start panicking, alarming the dog, and then — change the direction. The point is to get the dog to react to your body language, not the leash.
Of course, you can use this exercise to practice tight holding, for situations when you’ll have to put some pressure onto the dog so that it calms down — when there’s an emergency, for example. For regular situations, though, it would be a lot better if the dog could learn how to read your body language and relax by looking at you and realizing nothing alarming is going on.
#6: Be patient and learn how to wait it out without saying a WORD
Remember that “closed hand” exercise we mentioned earlier? Did you notice that you aren’t supposed to say a word until the dog calms down?
We can refer to this as the useful silent treatment, and it ties in with the fact that saying commands a bunch of times doesn’t do much. The dog has heard your command, as you probably have said it a few times already. It certainly knows what it means. Still, it doesn’t have enough impulse control to stop trying to get the treat.
You have to be patient when teaching a dog impulse control, as there is a lot of waiting involved. Rather than repeat the first step of the exercise a couple of times (saying the command again and again), you should strive to wait it out. Wait until the dog is calm enough and has noticed that the hand will only open if it sits or waits.
There are quite a few variations of this exercise, depending on how elaborate you want the dog training to be. In most cases, using low-value treats only works, but you could go the extra mile and have high-value treats on the other hand. That would let the dog know that if it behaves well, it could get not just the low-value treat at some point but the more delicious snacks too!
#7: Never punish OR reward bad behavior
As already mentioned, punishment shouldn’t even be your last resort — you should forget it even exists. Think about it — this small ball of fur didn’t ask for you to be its owner. You chose it, and you have to now take care of it properly. That includes not doing anything you wouldn’t want someone else to put you through.
On another note, you shouldn’t reinforce bad behavior. We see this all the time. Dog owners are just too in love with their pets that they see nothing wrong in them pushing a child, stealing food from the plate, etc. Yet that could turn into a full-fledged disaster if you’re not careful. The dog might learn to see this behavior as something good.
If the dog happens to steal food or something similar, use crate training to put an end to it peacefully. Don’t let it near the dining table, and don’t let it eat human food until it learns to behave. Keep working on impulse control until the pup is ready to simply lie underneath the table while the family is eating or until it learns to eat from its bowl while you’re having dinner.
#8: Daily exercise can eliminate frequent impulse-guided episodes
Humans often exercise in order to lose weight and get fit. However, what most of us fail to notice is how incredibly tired we are once the night falls. Of course, that post-workout instant surge of energy gets us going through the day. But once we decide it’s bedtime, we fall asleep without much hassle.
We can use this knowledge to curb a dog’s impulses. If you get the dog out and maintain daily exercise throughout its life, for as long as possible, there’s a chance you won’t have to deal with too many impulse-guided episodes.
The dog will naturally become calmer and let off some steam while running around in areas where giving in to harmless impulses is normal. What’s more, it’ll have a chance to bark at some birds and wrestle with other dogs, thus allowing itself such small pleasures but refraining from repeating them at home.
#9: Don’t overwhelm the dog — aim for one lesson at a time
Thinking you can teach an old dog new tricks is one thing. Thinking you can do it overnight is entirely another unrealistic scenario. There’s no way a dog will be able to pick up on all the cues immediately, and it’s not because it lacks intelligence.
It just has a different attention span and a lot more things that can distract it. If we see a squirrel, we might glance at it and say, “Look, a squirrel!” A dog would most likely run towards it. It’s something new or something so interesting that it has to check it out right now.
Bottom line? Try to go through dog training sessions slowly. Don’t try to teach the dog a few things at the same time, at least not until it shows some progress and until it reaches an age when goofiness is no longer its main trait (past puberty).
#10: Incorporate impulse control training into everyday activities
On another note, don’t think that training a dog in an artificial environment is the only way you can get the results you are after. On the contrary — a dog will never really learn impulse control if the only place it’s learning something is at home.
A healthy dog is one that is socialized, knows how to behave around small children and adults, and knows how to recognize impulse control cues even when it’s outside or in a stressful situation. That’s what you should aim at, so use everyday activities to keep training it. Every new experience counts. Also, the more experiences the dog has, the less likely it will surrender to its impulses.
#11: The dog has to trust you first, so never play tricks on it
We all love to play games with our dogs, that’s for sure. Still, when it comes to impulse control, there’s one game we have to avoid. Yes, we’re talking about the trickery most dog owners love to use to “have fun” — tempting the dog with something for too long, waving things in front of it to get a reaction, and similar.
Though it seems like something the dog also sees as a game, we’re walking a very thin line by tricking the dog like this. After all, a dog is an animal, and if it still doesn’t know how to control its impulses, you don’t really know what it will do if it gets annoyed.
Besides, it’s counterproductive. Imagine if someone took a donut and waved it in front of you. You wouldn’t like it, right? In fact, you might even want to snatch the donut away!
#12: Learn the dog’s body language — and clearly show your own
Finally, an impulse control dog training secret most owners might not be aware of is the power of body language.
Now, we’re not just talking about your body language. As mentioned already, if you stay calm, the dog might pick up on that cue and calm down as well. Likewise, if you start panicking.
That much is already clear, so let’s talk about a dog’s body language instead. Most of us have probably already seen dogs tilt their heads when they’re interested or show their teeth if they think they’re in danger. Why does this matter, though?
Well, the way you’ll train your dog will mostly depend on your dog’s character, its background, and how good you are at reading its body language. Of course, if the dog looks like it’s about to bite you, there’s not much to misinterpret there, is it? But what about when the dog goes into fearful submission? What if it lays down and doesn’t want to move, fearing you could do something to it?
When to change your approach
It’s crucial to understand the dog’s body language, as it will guide you through impulse control. The body language we display is also driven by our impulses. It’s a telltale sign of how we perceive the situation.
If it happens that the dog goes into fearful submission, you ought to change your approach. These rules are not set in stone, and you have to adapt them to your dog’s character and behavior. Moreover, if the dog shows aggression, consider if you can even tackle that. We often see this in rescue dogs that have been maltreated all their lives. They think every human wants to hurt them, even the one that has picked them up from the pound.
If you’re having trouble with an aggressive dog, consider getting some advice from the vet or a dog trainer. There are ways to go around this, but you have to be careful nonetheless.
Hopefully, we have shed some light on some of the most important secrets of impulse control dog training. As you go through the whole process, you may learn something new and exciting along the way. You might even find that some things work for your dog, while others don’t do anything for its attention span.
The point is to stay open to all the possibilities, patient and consistent. As said, nothing can happen overnight, and you can always try again. What matters the most is that you know impulse control will let your dog have a more peaceful and rewarding life. That’s all that matters in the end, wouldn’t you agree?