Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Helping Your Dog with Impulse Control

By Tamara McRill

Who hasn’t known a dog that has struggled with going for what they want as soon as they see it? From snatching food to chasing squirrels and bounding out the door, to jumping on their favorite people, the wonderfully curious and energetic nature of dogs can lead to all sorts of impulses. These urges need to be kept in check for their own safety as well as the safety of other people and pets. As responsible pet owners, it is our duty to help our dogs with impulse control. Here are five simple tips to help work towards better impulse control:

Recognize Triggers

Even the most well-behaved pets have that one thing that really messes with their control. For one of our dogs, Dusty, it’s mail. He has the clichéd need to get at the mail carrier, and knows that those envelopes and packages are delivered by his two-legged nemesis. Since we recognize that this is an impulse trigger for him, we can take steps to avoid getting him riled up in the first place and work with him on not eating our bills.

By noticing when your dog acts up, you can do the same. If you don’t instantly notice a pattern, you can try keeping a behavior diary. Note what your pet did, where, the time of day and if any other pets or people were present.

Proper Rewards

Some aspects of impulse control training are similar to treat training. Such as, you need to be sure you are offering your dog a reward he actually wants. This can range from quality dog treats to favorite toys to playtime.

But that’s not all a proper reward entails. You also have to deduce what the pain point was for your pet and satisfy what he gave up. It’s part of taking care of their mental wellbeing, as well as physical.

Say you have a dog that doesn’t stay for long periods of time and you are working with her on doing so. A yummy CANIDAE dog treat when you come back into the room after a successful stay is great, but what your pet probably really missed was companionship. So a bit of playtime may be a more appropriate reward in that situation, even if your dog normally responds to food.

Expect Changes

Like us, our furry companions change over time, be it in their surroundings, health or tastes. We can help our dogs deal with changes and newly developed behaviors by keeping a close eye on their needs, and evolving the impulse control training to suit these needs.

For example, our dog Cody was never one to wolf down his food in one sitting, and while he loved treats he responded best to lavish petting. That changed almost a year ago, when he was put on medication that made him hungry all the time. All of a sudden he now has a new set of weaknesses that goad him into destructive and harmful behavior as he searches for his edible obsession.

Not only did we implement more safety precautions (no food left in reach, no trash access and no eating with the other dogs), but we also have to use food as a reward for harder training. That’s what motivates him now.

Do the Exercises

There are many exercises you can do with your dog to help with impulse control. These are normally centered around specific commands that let your dog know which behavior you wish them to exhibit, such as leave it, fetch and wait, settle, and leash exercises. The ones you need to work on depend on what your dog has already learned and his impulse issues.

It’s important to continue with training even after your dog has mastered commands, to keep everything fresh in their mind.

Forgive Yourself for Using Crutches

Blessed as I am to have so many pet lovers as friends, it seems as if discussing how to train a dog brings forth as many lively debates as how to raise a child. Especially when we use methods that we know aren’t perfect, because they work best for now.

I get teased for having to use a stick to keep my chocolate Lab, Wuppy, in the yard during his free running time, instead of being able to command him to do so. I have no idea what is so magical about him holding one of these sticks in his mouth – there are only two “special” ones that work – but it keeps him in the yard even when there are other distractions. When we work one-on-one with his staying, the stick often works as his reward.

What is your pet’s biggest impulse trigger? What about training rewards – what does your dog prefer?

Top photo by Mylesisme
Bottom photo by Tamara McRill

Read more articles by Tamara McRill


  1. I would say it's a toss up - small people and squirrels! These are some good tips. Sometimes we need to work on this too.

  2. The only way to catch Jethro's attention is to throw his ball or bone. He thinks it's his job to 'bring it'. Molly could care less and listens IF she wants to.

  3. Our Border Collie, has a thing about rushing through doors or gates. She responds to attention more than treats. Great post.


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