Teaching Impulse Control

teaching dog impulse controlMany of us get annoyed when our dog jumps on us, whines, or nips at us for attention. Or when our dog impulsively dives to grab a shoe. We wish our dog could see an open door and not bolt through it. We get irritated when our dog barks, jumps and/or runs around when we take out a leash.

Here is the thing. Seeing something it wants and sitting near it unless or until told it can have it, is not something dogs inherently do, just as a young child taken to a candy store would more than likely not choose to sit in a chair and read a book. Unless, that is, that the dog has been taught that sitting near something it wants is what gets him the opportunity to have it; or the child has been taught that sitting in a chair in a candy store gets him/her a piece of candy or something else of value.

While choices in life are always made based on where the value is at that particular moment in time, impulsivity is the tendency to act without thinking for instant gratification. I may eat that chocolate cake sitting in front of me because it is there and it is REALLY tempting even though I know I am trying to lose weight. I may buy that expensive dress because it looked great on me in the store even though I have no immediate place to wear it and it is more than my budget would allow. I am willing to bet that all of us have made impulsive decisions at one time or another.

Dogs are the same way. In the moment, a dog may see a shoe on the floor and put it in its mouth, may see a leash and bark and run in circles, or may be excited to see its humans and will jump on them. The list can go on.

Here is the thing to always remember (I know, I keep repeating myself), while impulsivity may affect that split second decision, experience is what teaches the learner to repeat and strengthen a behavior or to modify and weaken its occurrence.

When we share our homes with pets, it is so important for us to realize we have a lot to do with the behaviors we see in our non-human companions. We need to be aware of our pet’s needs for physical and mental stimulation.

We also need to be aware that with every interaction of every waking moment, it is the consequences of behavior that determine the future rate of that behavior.

So, think about how you can incorporate this into your everyday life to live with a pet that makes more human acceptable choices. In another post, I wrote about a basic exercise for teaching self control – teaching your dog that the choice of going after food in your hand makes the opportunity go away but the choice of backing up from your hand gets the food. Think about how that exercise is expanded to other everyday life.

  1. The choice of barking in a crate gets humans to walk away or ignore him but the choice of sitting quietly gets the crate door to open.
  2. The choice of sitting at a door that opens gets him the opportunity to go outside but the choice to make a move toward the door makes the door close.
  3. The choice of dropping a toy at his owner’s feet gets him a tasty treat or a game of tug or something else but the choice of running away from his owner with the toy or keeping the toy in his mouth gets the owner to ignore him.
  4. The choice of walking by your side gets your dog the opportunity to receive a tasty treat or the opportunity to go sniff flowers or a hydrant with you but the choice of pulling at the end of the leash makes you stop forward movement.
  5. The choice of barking and pushing over you gets you to stay seated and keeps the car door closed but the choice of sitting in the car seat gets the door to open.

What can you add to this list?

At the same time, think about how you can add greater value to the acceptable behaviors your dog does so that he will choose to do those behaviors more often. Or what behaviors do you need to teach your dog that can help him to succeed in that circumstance?  If you want your dog to choose to lay in his bed instead of bumping you while you are working at your sink, how can you make that choice more valuable for your dog (while ignoring the behavior of bumping you)?  If you want your dog to lay down with relaxed muscles when you stop playing, how can you build value for your dog to lay down with relaxed muscles?

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me



Dog Training To Prevent Door Dashing

It was to be the second time I was helping a friend solve her dog’s door dashing problem. We were teaching her dog to lay down on a rug several feet from the door, and remain in that position, before we would open it. The ultimate goal: her dog would go to the rug on cue before opening the front door, and remain laying down until released.

The first time around, we ended training on a positive note when her dog remained laying down while I opened the door a small amount. Betty was to continue practicing in short sessions, always ending on a positive note (when her dog stayed down while the door opened a little) and wanting more learning. Betty (not her real name) told me and showed me that she understood how she was to teach before our next lesson.

However, when I got to her house that next time, the behavior had fallen apart. Betty was discouraged because she didn’t understand why.

We sat down for a few minutes as she proceeded to tell me in detail what had happened. “Most of the time’ her dog was able to remain in the down position near the door when it opened but “sometimes’ her dog got up and ran to the door, at which point Betty told her dog to go back to the mat and lay down. Then she gave her dog a treat for laying down.

That was really great feedback. I saw several things going on. Neither one had to do with a dog being dominant, bull headed, dumb or stubborn.

The first thing I saw was that all important phrase, ‘most of the time’ which tells me right away that her dog did not understand what it was she was supposed to do to earn reinforcement. If she did have a clear understanding, then she would have made the appropriate choice. With further questioning and watching Betty practice, I realized Betty was expecting too much from her dog too soon. She was taking too long to mark her dog’s choice of laying down which was not giving clear enough feedback for her dog.

The other thing that was going on was that her dog was actually being reinforced for a chain of behaviors (getting up, running to the door, going to the mat and laying down) which was serving to do the opposite of what Betty had intended. She was actually building value for getting up and running to the door because that resulted in her asking her dog to go to the mat, lay down and get an awesome treat.

What was our solution? We needed to provide very clear, consistent and immediate feedback to her dog of exactly the behavior we were teaching. And we needed to do that BEFORE the chain of behaviors began. Below is an overview of what we did (not in full detail).

using clicker training to stop dog from running out the door

We set out for our second training with me being responsible for the door and my friend responsible for marking her dog’s behavior (well, I was also responsible for making sure she marked the precise moment). This time as I moved toward the door and her dog remained laying down, Betty clicked BEFORE there was movement by her dog to clearly tell her dog, ‘yes’ that is exactly what I want you to do. We did ten repetitions of this and then stopped for awhile and came back to it. Very quickly we got back to where I could first touch the door and she could click for her dog remaining laying down, proceeded to my opening the door a crack and her marking her dog for remaining laying down in a little but longer increments (before there was any movement from her dog).

Then, when we were having success, we worked on more duration in tiny increments. I opened the door and this time we counted to two before clicking, then four, then back to two, then ten before marking with a click, releasing her dog and beginning again. Stopping and taking a break after about 20 successful repetitions.

It really did not take long this time before I could open the door fully and her dog remained on the mat until released after 10 seconds. The difference was in the clarity of our lesson.

Now the foundation was laid to continuing building on this skill with both duration and distractions outside the door. And Betty had a much clearer vision of her role as teacher.

It is important to remember, as your pet’s teacher, if your pet is not doing what you want in a training session, to think through your lesson plan and see how you can make it easier for both your pet and you to succeed.

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