Friday, March 25, 2022

Understanding Impulse Control or Self-regulation.


Is your dog impulsive, rushing into every opportunity that presents itself?  
Of do they demonstrate some self-regulation by resisting certain temptations unless they are given permission to enjoy it?

Common Impulse Control Dog Training Methods

Leave It
Many dog owners train some form of a "leave it" cue although they use a wide variety of cue words such as "not for you", "mind your business", or even "mine, not yours."  It doesn't matter what verbal cue you use, the basic idea is the same and many owners start out with a simple food lure to teach the skill.  Owner may place a dog in a sit or down position, asking them to stay which is the first step in self regulation.  Then owner often will present a treat in their hand or on the floor and covered so the dog isn't able to steal it, give their cue and then once the dog ignores the treat the dog is reinforced for that decision with the treat.  Some owners practice this to extremes asking the dog to ignore multiple treats placed on them and all around them, often building up duration making the dog wait longer and longer.  Sometimes owners move away from using treats for this cue and apply the "leave it" cue to distractions or other things in the environment.

This is another method, taught much the same as "leave it" but involves setting the dog up for success instead of tempting the dog with a treat or desired option.  This is often thought to be a more force free method of training because it is based on multiple force free training methods to achieve the end results slowly by adding distractions, distance, and duration over multiple training sessions proceeding through various training levels until you reach the end result.  

You can learn more about Zen at Sue Ailsby's website under Training Levels.

It's Yer Choice
This is a game taught by Susan Garret, where the owner provides free access to a lower value food such as kibble then rewards the dog with a high level such as chicken when the dog ignores the first offer.  Again this is taught with success in mind, by making the choice easy for the learner and slowly increasing difficulty level over time.  You can learn about this game by listening to Susan Garrett's Podcast #91, and probably a few others as well as she talks about this game often!

No matter what method of training you use to teach your dog some impulse control, you eventually want to be able to apply this to real life situations.  By teaching them to control themselves around people food, you often don't have to worry about counter-surfing or stealing of dinner.  By teaching them to ignore that cat, dog, or wild animal, you can avoid having your arm pulled off every time something new enters the environment your in.  

But how do you move from training into the real world?  This is often where many people struggle!  Se here are a few tips to help you out.

  1. Manage the environment!  If your dog loves to steal food, keep it under lock & key, out of their reach.  If your dog pulls towards distractions, you can use a harness with front & back clips and a dual clip leash to prevent sudden jerks that may injure you.  No matter there struggle, there are some steps you can take to manage the environment to reduce the dog's ability to repeat those behaviors you don't like.
  2. Training for calmness!  Again, you may have to be creative to come up with a way to train calmness around whatever is causing your dog to be excited, whether that's food, animals, people, cars, etc.  Not that long ago I was hosting a puppy for a service dog foundations board & train term.  This puppy loves FOOD so much that at just 5 months old she had already be brave enough to jump on owners lap and steal food right of their plate, basically right out of their hands.  One of the first things I implemented was a calmness routine based around mat training during my meal time.  And after just 3 days, puppy was already relaxing at my side while I ate dinner without even attempting to steal my food.
  3. Empower your dog with the wisdom to make good choices.  This may be easier said then done, but my method is to make sure I present my dog with choices every day.  Parents will commonly give toddlers simple choices in their day-to-day, such as setting out 2 outfits so the child can choose what to wear, instead of that child picking out clothes from a full closet with clothes that may not be appropriate for the day ahead.  The importance here is giving your dog choices that you as their owner can live with, no matter what choice they make.  One of the first choices I give my dogs, as a puppy or new rescue, is the choice to eat their food from a bowl or from an interactive toy such as a snuffle box.  You can put breakfast down in both the bowl and the toy and wait to see what they choose, then pick the other one up and save it for later.  Now some dogs might instantly want the food you just took away, so in this case you can offer different options that are easier for them to decide.  I take my dogs outside for a relaxed sniff-a-bout nearly every day.  During this time, the dogs choose where in the yard we go, the tree line, the barn, the hillside, etc.  Azul is always on a longline so he can't travel out of our yard for safety which also means he can't choose to go too far away from me on these walks.
  4. Build skills up over time without asking your dog to do things that are above their current skill set.  I can set my dinner down in my seat and leave the room with 2 dogs in the room and neither will go near my food.  But I didn't start there!  It took time to develop their leave it skills around people food, first with training sessions to develop skills, then short duration leave it's with another family member supervising while I left the room.  If you push your dog too far, too fast they are likely to make mistakes and practicing the behavior of making those mistakes will make it harder for them to learn what the choice is the good choice.

Adolescent Struggles with Impulse Control

There is a reason adolescent dogs seem to forget their training and seem to be uncontrollable!  Starting as early as 6 months old and lasting through around 2 yrs of age, is the hardest time in a dog's life known as adolescence or the teen phase.  During this time, mature nature is basically re-writing the dog's brain as they move away from puppy safety net thinking into an adult dog.  This doesn't happen all at once, but in short bursts throughout their development.  You may have heard that dogs go through fear stages as adolescents where they may develop certain phobias or have short periods of extra fearfulness around new things.  But what many owners do not realize is that dogs also go through periods of development where their brain connections temporarily become disconnected until they get re-wired into a connection that will last their lifetime.  We tend to compare these times to behavior terms that apply to humans such my dog is stubborn, willful, dis-obedient, won't listen....and the list goes on.  However in truth, our dogs don't understand what is going on at this time of life any more then most owners do.  The dog may have known tons of behaviors (sit, down, stay, etc.) from their puppy obedience classes, but all of a sudden they might be struggling with one or more of those behaviors.  With the re-wiring of the brain that is taking place, the dog often forgets the verbal cues that they have learned previously.  The good news is that this forgetfulness is short-lived!  They won't automatically remember something, such as we humans might forget where we placed our keys then like a lightbulb we remember.  But if we back up in training and lure that behavior a few times, they will make that new connection for that behavior pretty rapidly.

The other thing that adolescent dogs struggle with is distractibility.  Nearly everything becomes a distraction.  Right now, after a long winter of very few birds around, Azul has a new found love of little birds that are searching the ground for food.  He basically forget what songbirds are as the only birds that live through the winter here are large prey birds like eagles and hawks that typically keep a good distance from us.  Now the sight and sounds of the birds returning this spring has him distracted again.  This is just part of the Spring Fever that effects humans and dogs alike!

But for me, the hardest part of adolescence for our dogs, is that they loss the ability to control sudden impulses or self-regulate their behaviors seeming to have a one-track mind focused on whatever seems to have caught their eye at the moment.  For a dog that loves sniffing as much as Azul does, smells very quickly can send Azul over the edge and into a state where all he can think about that amazing smell and how he's going to get to it.  Whatever those cute puppy behaviors such as jumping on people, barking for attention, pulling on the leash, and so forth, now seem to come back with a vengeance! Only those behaviors are not so cute any more, especially with larger dogs that can now hurt you when they jump on you or pull to the end of the leash suddenly.  We worked hard to train the puppy to do the behaviors we wanted and now that seems to have flown out the window and nothing helps.  We need to remember that this is a stage, and our dogs are not trying to be disobedient they simply lack the ability to use any self control.  

Now does this mean we let them get away that obnoxious behavior?  Absolutely not!  Practicing bad behaviors help to set those behaviors in which will make them lasting behaviors into adulthood.  But if our dogs can't focus on what we are trying to train them to do and they can't help themselves, how are we supposed to move past this issue?  This is where management and setting up for success really come into play!  Our dog's often don't get to choose the environment they go for a walk in, or how often they go for a car ride, or pretty much any environment they are in.  We as people decide where to take our dogs and what activities to do with our dogs.  If we know an environment is overly stimulating for our dogs, we probably should be avoiding that environment temporarily until we see our dog's focus beginning to come back.  

Right now, Azul has a slight problem with wanting to somewhat bully or boss around dogs at the dog park so we are avoiding the dog park.  He doesn't want to hurt or fight with the new dogs, but he gets so fixated on one dog that he won't leave them alone long enough to catch their breathe.  I don't want this harassment or fixation to become a lasting behavior, so avoiding the dog park until Azul demonstrates some self-restraint around new dogs will prevent him from practicing the behaviors I don't want to see at the dog park.  Instead, we have playdates with Azul's friends because he can stay under threshold with dogs he knows so much easier and thus the undesired behaviors don't happen around friends.  Azul will still love to visit the dog park every day, but I choose to avoid it for now.  When weather allows us to walk the nearby trails and work at a distance around the outside of the dog park and Azul has the ability to control his sudden impulses more effectively, we will slowly build up to visiting the dog park again.  

This is my management tool for this issue, avoid the triggers until we both are better equipped to set up training sessions designed to be successful for both of us!  When we realize our limitations and our adolescent dog's limitations we can create better opportunities that allow us to repeat the activities that we both enjoy.  This keeps everyone happier and will help our dog's to become more rounded adult dogs that can handle these challenges better once their brain has stopped it's rapid development stage.

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