Self control or impulse control is not a skill dogs are born knowing. They see a squirrel, they charge after it. They smell scents and they stop to take it in. They see an open doorway and they run through it. They see tasty food and they grab it.
Teaching this is a great foundation for lots of other training…and success in your home.
Teaching is the key word.
Here is a fun and simple way to begin the process of teaching your dog or puppy self control, zen, impulse control or ‘leave it’ (different names for the same set of behaviors). It involves controlling the consequences of your dog’s behavior choices, NOT your dog. And because you are giving full control of your dog’s behavior outcomes to your dog, you are empowering him which builds confidence and a greater love for learning.
Supplies: yourself, treats (to begin, have lower value food if your dog will become too aroused by it or higher value food if your dog is less food motivated), and a clicker if you use clicker training.
Location: a place with minimal to no distractions
Game time: no longer than three minutes
Hold treats in your closed fist and allow your puppy or dog to investigate. Most will lick, paw at, or sniff your fist. Keep your fist closed and do not give any verbal instructions. Simply hold your fist closed while your puppy or dog is doing anything to try to get the treats.
If all of his unacceptable behaviors are continued to be met by a non-response from you, eventually he will turn away or back away. At the instant he does this, mark that behavior with a verbal word or click and open your fist (or you can just open your fist). Congratulations, you have just reinforced the first step or approximation!
It is important to note that just the sight of the treats is a reinforcer to your dog and will keep your dog in the game if your treats are of value to him.
What is your dog’s next decision? If he tries to reach for the food, guess what happens? The consequence of that behavior is that his opportunity to see the food is gone as you close your fist. If, however, he does not try to reach for the food, pick up a treat and give it to him.
If I am playing this with a very persistent dog, I will look for the tiniest of movement away from the food to immediately mark to get the game moving forward.
After your dog is successfully backing away from or able to remain in a behavior like a sit or down position while the open fist is presented, it will be time to increase the difficulty of the game.
The next step will be placing treats on the floor with your hand cupped over them. When your dog backs away or makes no motion toward them, you can spread your fingers or remove your hand. However, be prepared to very quickly move your hand back if your dog makes an attempt to go for the treats.
Some more advanced levels of this game include:
- Increase the difficulty by increasing the value of the food.
- Add a criteria of eye contact. I have not done that in my video with Sam, but if you’d like to teach eye contact, wait until your dog looks up at you to mark the behavior and give him one of the treats. It may be helpful to teach eye contact first in a separate lesson.
- Vary your body position and position of your hands. Can your dog still have eye contact with you and/or remain sitting or laying down while you are standing, taking a step back from the food? If so, mark and reinforce that duration. (Be prepared here to cover the food up quickly with your foot as your hand may be too far away to reach it before your dog gets to it, if he chooses to move to it.)
- Vary the reinforcer. This game is meant to be expanded on. Can your dog remain laying down or sitting or standing while you get ready to throw a ball? Can your dog remain laying down or sitting or standing when you walk to or open the door?
You can also add a cue to this. I tell our dog Sam, ‘wait’ and then ‘go get it.’
When you think about it, self control is a skill that helps our animals and our relationship with them succeed in so many ways. This is the beginning of the journey.
What other ways do you teach self control?