Thursday, September 19, 2013

What is Impulse Control in Dogs?

By Linda Cole

I didn't really understand what impulse control was until our dog Keikei came to live with us. She was an adorable and happy 8 week old puppy who quickly adjusted to us and the other dogs. But as she grew, she became overly excited to go outside. By the time she was 4 months old, her excitement escalated to a point of no return, and she was easily agitated. She was the perfect example of a dog that needed to learn impulse control.

In our world, impulse control is delayed gratification, resisting an impulse for immediate satisfaction of a desire or temptation. Instead of spending your entire paycheck on an expensive vacation package, you spread the cost out over time to lessen the financial impact on your wallet. Your budget for this month is tight, so you skip the Friday nights out so you can pay the bills. We learn as children that no matter how much we might want something right now, whether it's a new toy, going to a concert or staying overnight with a friend – immediate desires or wants don't always happen. So (hopefully) we learn early on the need for impulse control.

Controlling a puppy's impulse isn't difficult because of their smaller size, and most pups can be picked up to stop an unwanted reaction to something they want. If your terrier puppy finds a chipmunk hole in your prized flower bed, you can pick him up to stop him from digging, and then figure out how to humanely relocate the chipmunk without ruining your flowers. But depending on a pup's age, not all puppies can be picked up to control an impulse. That's one reason why it's important to start puppy training as soon as you bring him home. Unfortunately, as a pup grows up, he becomes more independent and if you didn't teach him at a young age how to control his impulses, his unwanted behavior will remind you of the importance of dog training. A dog that obeys basic commands is easier to control, and that is one way you can keep him safe.

All dogs should know how to sit, come, drop it, leave it and stay/wait. Teaching your pet is something you have to make a commitment to do, and starting when your dog is young helps you ward off bad behavior as he gets older. You might be surprised to discover how quickly dogs can learn. Some canines are free thinkers, some are more stubborn and some are sensitive, but all dogs can learn if you commit to their training. The Border Collie sits at the top of the list of smartest dogs, not because they are the Einsteins of dogs, but because they only need a few repetitions to learn something new. The Bloodhound is close to the bottom because it takes many more repetitions for him to catch on. It's our job to find out what motivates our pet to learn. Dog training is a process that requires patience, as well as understanding who your dog is as an individual.

Teaching a dog to sit and wait is one of the best ways to help him relax and learn impulse control. A dog who grabs a CANIDAE treat from your hand or practically knocks you over trying to get out the door is telling you he doesn't understand how to control himself. His excitement to get what he wants right now causes unintended bad behavior. You can change his behavior by having him sit calmly to get what he wants so he learns to control himself. Sitting patiently has an added advantage and helps him learn to focus on you to find out what's next, which is one way you earn your dog's respect and leadership role.

Start slow, be patient and calm, use positive reinforcement and give your dog plenty of opportunities to be successful. Once he learns a command, practice it daily. Keikei learned her commands very quickly, especially sit and drop it, and she's extremely responsive when learning something new. If she has trouble containing her excitement when going outside, putting her in a sit/stay calms her down and makes it much easier to control her desire to herd the other dogs down the steps and out the door. Working with her to control her excitement also gave me an opportunity to teach her how to wait.

Dogs don't understand what impulse control means. To them, everything they do is natural behavior, and the only consequence is not getting what they want sooner. As responsible dog owners, it's up to us to help our dogs learn to suppress natural desires, like herding anything that moves, digging up a flower bed or chasing a squirrel. Keeping their excitement under control is how you keep your dog safe, and it keeps other pets, property and people safe, too.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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