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Teaching your Dog Impulse Control


Even though dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still occasionally behave in a way that is counter to what their humans would like.  A major contributing factor is that dogs tend to act on impulse, not stopping to “think” about the consequences of their actions.  Fortunately, dogs can be conditioned to control their impulses, which will be discussed here.

What Types of Impulses do Dogs Have?
Dogs and toddlers are often compared to one another because they behave impulsively, such as running through open doors, jumping on favorite humans when they walk through the door, and immediately gobbling up any food that falls on the floor.  Dogs that are deemed to have “behavioral problems” are typically ones that act impulsively.

What is Impulse Control?
Impulse control involves teaching your dog counter behaviors that force him or her to divert attention away from an object, human, or animal.  As dogs become better at this skill, they learn to “rethink” their actions by weighing consequence vs. reward.

Why should my Dog Learn Impulse Control?
There are many reasons to teach your dog impulse control.  Most importantly, impulse control will keep you, your dog, and other animals safer inside and outside the house.  For instance, teaching your dog the “leave it” command can keep your pet from ingesting a poisonous substance.  The “wait” command can keep your pet from sprinting through an open door while “look at me,” can help you quickly get your dog’s attention.

How is Impulse Control Taught?
The best way to teach impulse control is to teach your dog commands that require him or her to pay attention and wait for a follow up command.  These include “stay,” “leave it,” “look at me,” and “wait.”

One of the more difficult – but extremely important – commands to teach is “leave it.”  To teach this command you should first arm yourself with two types of treats:  one that is extremely high value (i.e. pieces of cheese or meat) and a lower value reward (i.e. pieces of dried kibble).  Place the dried kibble in your open hand, and show the treat to your dog.  Next, close your hand around the treat.  Your dog will likely try to lick, gnaw, and paw at your hand.  As soon as your dog loses interest in the treat, give him or her a reward from the high value pile (never give your dog the kibble as a reward, which could be confusing).

After a few sessions like this, overlay the phrase “leave it” when you close your hand around the treat and your pet ignores it.  Once your dog has gotten the hang of this exercise, place the treat on the floor and ask your dog to “leave it.”  If your pet goes for the treat instead of listening to the command, simply place your hand over the treat until your dog loses interest.  Be sure to provide a reward immediately in order to reinforce the proper behavior.  By following these steps, your pet will quickly develop this important skill!

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Anna Weber

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