Impulse Control for Dogs: What It Is, Why It Matters and How to Teach It
Sometimes, it’s quite difficult to come out and admit that our dog has a problem. Indeed, most of us tend to see dogs as our children, and as if they don’t have a bad bone in them! However, all that goes down the drain as soon as we realize that what people have been telling us about impulse control for dogs wasn’t just white noise — they were trying to help us.
Of course, there’s no need to see a lack of impulse control as a reason to leave the dog at the shelter. No matter how hard it seems right now, teaching dogs self-control is possible, and they don’t have to be puppies to learn fast. Quite frankly, a puppy’s attention span is short, so great results won’t really be possible with them. But we can achieve marvelous results with slightly older dogs. We can teach them that just because they want something, it doesn’t mean they can have it IMMEDIATELY.
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Still, before delving further into the matter, we first have to clearly define what impulse control for dogs is and why it matters. So, why don’t we start with the basics?
Have you ever walked into a store, bought something you don’t need but want, and then immediately after leaving the store, you forgot about it? That was a telltale sign of a lack of impulse control.
Humans are notorious when it comes to self-control, particularly now in the 21st century. With the rising popularity of the catchy “treat yourself!” we are sort of relying on the fact that we deserve something even when we don’t need it. We treat our impulses as something that will make us happy for a while; improve our mood, at the very least.
We could say dogs fall victim to the same thinking process. Instant gratification is what dogs thrive on. Whether they’re doing something to get our attention or chasing a ball across the street, they are always on the hunt for that one thing that will give them instant JOY. It doesn’t matter if the situation is dangerous or not. It doesn’t even matter if we’re screaming after them. The only thing they’re listening to is the sudden urge to get or do something — and you can be sure it’s not easy to stop them once they follow that impulse.
And that’s exactly where the real problem lies. When impulse control is non-existent, dogs can get themselves in trouble. In fact, that’s why most dogs run away from their homes! They don’t have enough patience or weren’t taught to wait for their owner to take them out. So, as soon as a door opens, they see it as a chance to get out into the world and follow their instincts. They let their impulses take over, and more often than not, it’s as if they’re blinded by them. You can scream their name all you want — but a dog with no impulse control won’t care or even hear you!
Impulse control for dogs: why it matters
We have already mentioned that dogs can easily get themselves into a rather unfortunate situation when they lack self-control. However, in order to help everyone understand why impulse control for dogs matters so much, we have to see why a lack of it could spell a disaster.
No control = no training
Without proper impulse control, i.e., focus, dog training will essentially be futile. It doesn’t matter how much we try to coax them with treats or toys. If dogs are set in their ways because we never reinforced self-control — why would they suddenly listen to us when we’re teaching them to roll over?
You see, dogs are quite similar to children, in that we are the ones who have to teach them some manners. And, believe it or not, impulse control is closely related to manners as well. If a dog is jumping up and down whenever you have guests over, they are not just doing it because they’re happy. They’re trying to get instant gratification — attention.
However, not only is such behavior annoying, but it can also be downright dangerous. Think about it. At some point, some of your friends will take their children with them. Most children love dogs, but there are those who will be afraid of them at first. In any case, if you let your dog jump on the children, they can easily not just injure but traumatize them as well!
On another note, dogs can also get themselves in trouble when they lack impulse control. For example, if they see a familiar dog in the park and decide to go home with them by crossing a street by themselves. They’re just following their impulses — they want to play with their friend! However, their impulses have nothing to do with the traffic, and more often than not, a lack of impulse control leads to horrible tragedies. In the best-case scenario, you’ll get quite a scare. In the worst— well, you can imagine what might happen.
One of the most annoying things about misbehaved dogs is that they often tend to destroy our homes. Be it socks, shoes, or furniture, dogs that cannot control their impulses tend to wreak havoc left and right.
Of course, there are various reasons dogs like to chew on things. Puppies are infamous for their chewing habits because new teeth are growing, which itches like crazy, just like in children. However, dogs that continue exhibiting this sort of behavior later on usually suffer from a rather difficult case of lack of self-control. Either they weren’t reprimanded before or are trying to cope with some issues — whatever it might be, impulse control training is necessary.
Puppies and impulse control — early mistakes
Before we move on to explain how to incorporate impulse control for dogs into your daily life, we should say a thing or two about puppies and their attention spans.
As mentioned, the attention span of a young dog is quite short, so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to learn self-control right away. However, what turns this “delay” in training into a much greater impulse control issue is the fact that we believe we’re doing the puppy a favor by letting it roam freely to learn survival skills.
In the end, the greatest mistake any dog owner could do is let a puppy do things because it’s cute and still too young for training. No dog is too young to be trained, especially when it comes to impulse control and common behavior issues. In fact, the earlier we start, the better the results will be.
Lack of impulse control in dogs: common behavior issues
Now that we have that covered, let’s see which behavior issues dogs with a lack of self-control usually exhibit.
Pulling the leash
Most of the time, we imagine having a dog is similar to living with our best friend. Finally, we have someone who will always be ready to go for a walk or to play. However, the problem with the lack of impulse control in most dogs is the fact that even their undying love for us won’t stop them from following their instincts.
Such is the case with dogs that tend to pull their leash. In some part of their brain, a reaction to their environment happens, and they lose all the control over their bodies. They are drawn to things, and their impulses are making them pull the leash as hard as possible — they’re eager to get what they want!
A quite common problem among larger dogs is their ability to counter surf. What this means is that they can place their paws onto the kitchen counters and grab food.
There are two main issues with counter surfing we ought to pay attention to. The first one relates to the dog’s lack of impulse control regarding food. Dogs, when left alone, would probably eat everything and anything. They are used to fending for themselves because it’s in their genetic makeup. Thus, they don’t see anything wrong in taking something from our plates, scouring the kitchen for food, or jumping up to get something from the counters.
The other issue is the lack of patience. Just like humans, dogs are naturally quite impatient and would like to get what they want right now. If they don’t get it from us, they will take it themselves. However, the difference between dogs and us is that we already know patience is a virtue. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t, and it’s our job to teach them about it.
Impulse control aggression
One form of dangerous behavior a dog with a lack of impulse control could exhibit is abnormal aggression. This type differs from regular aggression dogs might display towards other dogs. In fact, most would call it dominance aggression, which usually leads to dogs being left at the shelter.
It’s a bit tricky to explain what impulse control aggression is. Most dog owners wouldn’t even recognize it, but would usually describe their dog as “unpredictable.”
Dogs that suffer from impulse control aggression seek out control in social environments. They don’t like to be touched a certain way and often send mixed signals. Such a dog might want to sleep in the bed with you but will bite you if you move. Likewise, it might exhibit aggression towards other family members because it’s protective over another human being. In fact, it could see small children as a threat because they’re “staring.”
This particular form of aggression is rather difficult to treat, purely because the dog is already set in its ways, and the core of the problem is usually in anxiety. It’s needless to say physical punishment would make things a lot worse. The dog already sees the human as a threat, so punishing it will just reinforce this.
Thus, when it comes to impulse control aggression, it’s crucial to tread lightly. We ought to first recognize the signs, i.e., things the dog reacts to (for example, pulling on its collar), and then proceed not to do that anymore.
Barking at everyone and everything
Finally, a lack of impulse control is generally seen in excessive barking. Dogs use barking to communicate what they feel and think — it’s an impulsive reaction to their surroundings. Still, they might display their lack of self-control by barking at everyone and everything — from neighbors and children to other animals. What’s more, some dogs are so out of control that they don’t stop barking for hours on end. Most of the time, this can be seen in extremely anxious or fearful dogs that haven’t been trained in impulse control properly or at all.
Impulse control for dogs: Simple exercises we can try at home
Though impulse control for dogs sometimes requires an expert’s attention, there are ways we can teach dogs self-control at home. Here are some exercises that would guide the dog through the basics and allow it to become more patient.
Making the dog pay attention to us and only us
Dogs don’t usually have a long attention span, so training them in impulse control will be useless unless we first teach them to pay attention to us. For that, the best tool we can use would be a clicker, although verbal cues are also welcome.
The point of the exercise is to make the dog look at us to get a reward, i.e., a treat. The first few times, the dog will probably try to get the treat without looking at us. It will impulsively jump for the food without listening to what we’re saying. Because of that, it’s crucial to nip this sort of behavior in the bud immediately. Take back the treat and wait for the dog to calm down.
Impulse control for dogs is all about waiting for proper behavior and not using shouting or punishment to enforce it. So, if the dog is not listening, stop, and try again. When it listens to you, give it a treat and tell it something positive — “You’re such a good boy/girl,” for example.
The more you work on this exercise, the more the dog will pay attention to you and not its surroundings. Therefore, keep prolonging the process by making the dog focus on you long before getting the treat.
The Open Hand game
Dogs will impulsively look or ask for treats whenever and wherever, so it’s crucial to teach them some patience. To do that, use the Open Hand game.
The gist of the game is quite simple. Take some treats into your hand, keep your palm open, and wait for the dog to see it. Once it does and it goes after the treats, close the hand. Wait for the dog to settle down.
Dogs that lack impulse control will try to take the treats by nudging you, licking your hand, etc. The important thing is not to give in. Once the dog settles down, open your palm again. If the dog tries to take the treats, close it again, and wait some more.
The point of this exercise is for dogs to learn that they should wait for your cue to eat the treats. So, once they figure out that they have to calm down and STAY that way in order to get the treats, they will quickly give in. And, after they do, you can freely open the palm of your hand, wait a bit and then say “Here you go” or use another similar phrase.
Another way to teach dogs patience and impulse control is to go through a simple “Leave it” exercise. All you would need for this are treats and one of their favorite toys.
Leave a few treats on the floor and wait for the dog to see them. As soon as it charges towards them, calmly say “leave it.” Then, a point at the toy — use it as a cue and an open invitation.
If the dog doesn’t come to you, there’s no reward. However, if it does leave the treats, it’ll be rewarded with some playtime. After praising the dog, tell it to get the treats, and repeat the exercise often to reinforce this behavior.
As said, dogs love instant gratification. Yet, this exercise will actually teach them that there are two rewards waiting for them if they learn how to patiently wait and let go of their impulses.
Don’t rush! Teaching a dog impulse control takes time.
The exercises above will get you through the basics of impulse control for dogs. However, it’s important to pay attention to your behavior as well.
Humans are also prone to impulsive behavior, and we love giving in to it when we’re annoyed. Therefore, remember that:
Patience is key
An impatient person cannot teach impatient dog patients. Though this might sound like a simple tongue-twister, there’s a lot of truth in it. Dogs can feel when we’re annoyed and eager for them to learn something. However, they rarely do well under pressure and can become anxious because of it.
You have to be consistent.
Nothing happens overnight, so it’s completely ridiculous to expect from our dogs to suddenly start listening to us. It will take time for dogs to realize that being calm is not that bad after all and that bigger, greater things await them if they learn how to control their impulses.
Impulse control for dogs is a waiting game.
Finally, don’t try to speed up the whole process. Eliminating bad behavior requires us to tap into the dog’s hidden intelligence and give it the resources it needs to learn how to behave. However, that also means we have to wait for the dog to change and become a calm superstar canine.
If we decide to teach a dog how to control its impulses, waiting for the transformation is crucial. However, in the end, it pays off; we will avoid various dangerous situations and ensure the dog lives a long and happy life.
Final thoughts on impulse control for dogs
Learning self-control is difficult for humans, let alone dogs that have never been reprimanded for their bad behavior. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to teach them how to control themselves in various situations, especially if they’re big dogs that are not aware of how strong they are.
By implementing various techniques and using a comprehensive dog training system, dogs can learn good things come to those who wait. Additionally, working on impulse control will also create an unbreakable bond between the owner and the dog, as well as prevent alpha behavior and unnecessary abnormal aggression.