A Game To Teach Self Control

The Red Light, Green Light game uses play and exercise to build skills of self-control in your dog. It is a ton of fun for both you and your four legged friend.

 A pre-requisite for this game is to first work on teaching your dog controlled behaviors such as sit or down. This is a great way for building more value for those behaviors.

Playing this game with your dog is a fun way to train self control and other behaviorsBegin by moving around until your dog begins to move also. Before your dog becomes overly aroused, stop your movement. If you have been practicing that controlled behavior on cue, then you can give your dog the cue as soon as you stop. You become very still and be a tree. As soon as he does the controlled behavior, then give him his release cue (such as ‘release’ or ‘let’s play’), and encourage him to move as you move.


As you are having success, you can increase the difficulty by doing more active behavior to get your dog in a more active state and then ask for the controlled behavior by giving your cue.


You can also work on duration of your controlled behavior before giving your release cue. (Remember that when you are working on building duration, you are adding very short amounts of time – seconds – before giving your release cue.)


Additionally, you can also work in exercises to teach your dog to go into a calmer state. When you stop movement, either sit or stand and ask for your dog to lay down (or you can simply wait for your dog to lay down). Then go through a shaping process of calmly reaching down and giving your dog a treat as you notice his body muscles begin to relax.


You can include several people with this game too, just make sure that when you stop and give your dog the cue for his behavior, that EVERYONE stops moving at once and BEGINS moving at once.

Make sure you give your dog clarity when it is time to end the game. I tell Sam ‘all done’ when we are finished training or playing. After this game, you may want to sit for a few minutes immediately afterward to make it even more clear for your dog. Once you have given your dog the end game cue, then it is absolutely important that you ignore any and all attempts by your dog to keep the game going. If you give in, then you will be teaching your dog that bumping or jumping on you, or other attention soliciting behavior works to get play to resume.


This is a fun game to involve children too; however, always play this with adults present. To help kids have more success, adults should first play this with their dog to teach their dog the game rules – and children should not be encouraged to be wild and crazy around their dog, as their dog’s arousal may escalate quickly. Teaching children how to be still, like a tree, when their dog is a great safety measure for both kids and dog.

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Lessons In Teaching Self Control

This past weekend I attended a fun, two-day workshop on teaching self control by Swedish dog trainer (and border collie breeder) Fanny Gott at PosiDog in Columbus. She and her husband have a training school focusing on clicker training for dog sports.

In a dog training workshop, instructor Fanny Gott reminded us, that self control is driven by the dog’s choice. Fanny reminded us to teach dogs self control with choice rather than with lures, prompts and punishment. It is how you teach your dog to problem solve and to think through choices of behavior that lead to valued consequences (for your dog). It is also about you having fun with your pet and strengthening your relationship.

“There is no big difference between everyday life and training for competition,” Fanny told us. “Why settle for anything less than both joy AND control?”

In our workshop, there were about a dozen working dogs with a whole broad range of training experience from a german shepherd who was preparing for obedience competition to puppies who thought nothing of running at the end of their leash to jump on new people to a small dog who quivered and scanned the room and all of its scary newness.

Fun play and food (and, in the case of the people-loving puppies, the opportunity to run up to strangers) were the valued reinforcers for them. A dog who is crazy about a ball was being taught that doing something else was the way to a favorite object. A dog who really wanted that piece of food in a bowl was being taught that the way to get a piece of food is to be able to walk by the bowl at his owner’s side. A dog who lay calmly on the ground was given the opportunity to get an awesome toy. A dog who had no interest in food when a favorite toy was within reach was being taught that it was the behavior of taking the offered treat that got him a game of tug.

While the lessons were very different, their similarity was in teaching dogs contingencies between behaviors and consequences – and in making the classroom fun.  The reinforcers were consequences that the dog values. (I will write about increasing the value of reinforcers in a future post.)

The other similarity? These dogs were working! Make no mistake about it, they were absolutely exercising. In fact, even a border collie tired after about five minutes or so of a training session. It occurred to me how often people talk about taking their dog for a walk when they talk about exercise. Training your dog to focus on a lesson that involves both physical and mental control is exhausting. In fact, Fanny reminded us that after a short session, it is important to give dogs time to rest and to avoid another difficult training session right afterward.

Equally important, is that self control is something that must be practiced often and with consistency in order to strengthen. These are some tips Fanny gave for practicing.

  1. Look at everything happening in your training session. Ask yourself, is your dog showing self control or getting reinforcement for behaviors you do not want to see?
  2. Look at increasing your dog’s self control in everyday life. Really think about it. When are you being proactive vs reactive to your dog’s behavior? And how can you change that?
  3. Ask yourself, “how much are you managing your dog vs how often is your dog given a choice?”

Remember, this is about controlling access to reinforcers NOT controlling your dog.

What are some ways in which you have taught your dog self control? I’d love to hear.

On Setting Your Pet Up For Success

The other day I was working with this sweet girl, Fifa, and one of her caregivers, Jennifer. We were going to go outside to begin teaching Fifa about walking on a loose leash, only, I quickly realized just the act of being near the front door sent her over her excited meter.

She could hardly wait to get out the door. How did I know? Her tail was wagging pretty quickly and she was jumping up at the storm door. In fact, she really could not focus on anything else except what was appearing through that clear window.

Calmness was something Fifa’s family wanted her to learn around doorways so I asked her to sit. And, she continued to jump. Was Fifa being bad or stubborn or obstinate?

training a dog with distractionsNot in my eyes. She was an adorable adolescent labradoodle who obviously has come to learn from her prior experience in situations like this that jumping on the doorway gets the door to open and the opportunity to experience everything that is great outside. And, had I opened the door at that moment, no doubt she would have been through it in a heartbeat.

But her family would rather her show calm behaviors instead of bolting out the door.

The problem was – when she was in her overly excited state of mind, the opportunity to teach her anything was gone. If I had tried in that moment, more than likely I would have been setting us both up for failure.

When you are teaching any animal lessons in self control or anything else for that matter (and wanting to set them up for success), it is so important to begin where your student is capable of learning. That means carefully introducing distractions only at a level that will not set the animal over her threshold, and moving forward as the animal shows she can continue to focus.

With Fifa, setting her up for success only meant taking a few steps back. When she was about six feet from the door, she was able to sit when I asked her. And she was able to continuing sitting when asked. So we moved forward a couple steps and practiced again. She was still able to continue sitting. We followed this pattern up to the point where we got back to the storm door, where she originally could not focus at all. After enough repetitions of positive practice and setting her up for success, this time when I asked Fifa to sit – she sat! And she was able to remain seated as she saw the world on the other side of the storm door.

My take-a-way for you: Always ask yourself if your pet is not focusing, am I making this lesson too difficult? How can I better motivate my pet to want to listen?

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