Impulse control in dogs: Working on impulse control and arousal levels helps a dog become calm and self- controlled.
Impulsive individuals are usually characterized by rapid responses to stimulation, accelerated action and difficulties with inhibiting their responses (Miklosi, 2015).
Arousal levels can look different in different dogs. Some dogs respond more quickly and intensely to a certain stimulus than other dogs (Overall, 2005). Individual variation is seen in the reaction to a positive stimulation (food for example) or in aggressive behavior.
In aggressive behavior, a more impulsive dog may bite sooner and more forcefully and escalate a fight faster than a less impulsive dog (Miklosi, 2015). Some of the signals determining the level of arousal an individual dog has can include the alertness they show (sometimes referred to as hyper-vigilance), their vocalizations, their degree of restlessness and displaying of displacement behaviors (Overall, Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 1997). Displacement behaviors are behaviors the dog shows in an effort to resolve a conflict within them or to deal with stress.
Sometimes over-arousal and impulsiveness are inadvertently encouraged by people. The greeting behavior of the 8-week-old puppy may be seen as cute and reinforced by people but that same behaviour when the dog reaches adult size and cannot control himself when visitors arrive can become a problem. Other examples are the agility dog who has trouble maintaining a stay at the start line of a course or the very mouthy puppy both of whom may have difficulty with arousal levels.
So, how do we help dogs become less impulsive and more self-controlled?
One way is to use food.
With a handful of treats in my closed fist, I allow the dog to sniff the hand. Some dogs will paw or mouth but will eventually move their head away from the hand. When they do, give the dog one treat from the other hand. Repeat this until the dog understands that the reward comes when he moves his head away and waits calmly. Then withhold the treat for a bit longer and then reward for a longer time away (some dogs back up which is great too and worth rewarding). Once the dog understands that staying back quietly from the hand gets him or her the reward, then open your hand and reward if the dog stays away, close your hand if the dog approaches. After that, put your closed hand on the ground or floor and repeat the exercise. Dogs do not generalize well so they often repeat the pawing behaviour when the hand is in a different position. This exercise can be done in a variety of situations to address counter surfing and other issues.
Another useful tool for teaching self-control is tug toy games with people.
This game, when played correctly, helps with bite inhibition, self-control, releasing objects and is a great reward for dogs. Keep the game gentle.
For dogs who are over-aroused and anxious when left on their own, there is good news. Studies show that they respond well to systematic desensitization. Dogs who participated in desensitization exercises had significant reductions in the frequency and intensity of the separation-related behaviors and, three months after the treatment ended, most of the dogs showed almost complete elimination of the problem behaviour (Butler, Sargisson and Elliffe 2011).
Jane Bowers, B.A., CABC, CPDT-KA
Jane Bowers has been training dogs for over two decades. She teaches people to train their dogs in group and private training courses and has a keen interest in assisting dogs with behavioral issues. Her company is Dogs of Distinction Canine Training Inc. Jane has a monthly newspaper column on dog related topics and is a former host of a live call in TV show on animals. She is a strong advocate for force free and humane training methods for all animals.
Jane has a degree in psychology and is certified as a dog trainer through the Certification Council of Professional Pet Dog Trainers and as a behaviour consultant through the International Association of Behavior Consultants and through the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals. These organizations require a minimum number of continuing education units be obtained to retain certification. She is also a professional member of The Pet Professional Guild, an organization committed to force free training of animals and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. a professional organization of individual trainers who are committed to being better trainers through education.
Jane is the content creator of the online course Assessing and Interpreting Dog Behaviour, which is a course for law enforcement personnel who meet unfamiliar dogs in the course of their duties. She is the author of Perfect Puppy Parenting, a guide to raising a happy, confident, well-behaved dog.
Jane spent 17 years working for Customs Border Services and in joint teams with US Homeland Security and the RCMP. She spent a further 8 years working as an Animal Control Officer and Bylaw Enforcement Officer.
Jane lives on a small farm with dogs, sheep, donkeys, and chickens. The dogs each came from situations that prevented them from living in their original homes. The dogs range in size and age and with the dog training and behavioral work, whether it’s participating in the development of an online training course, working with a client’s dog or tracking a lost pet or animal.