A member of a list that I am on asked how I teach dogs impulse control.
This is my answer:
Generally as a standard exercise, I teach what I call the motivational “Off”. That is about leaving food (and I repeat the process with a tug toy). If the dog tries to grab it, I take it away, and if the dog waits, I give him or her permission to get it.
The difference between this and the traditional “leave it” is that the motivational “off” means, if you control yourself, you get what you want. Whereas “leave” usually means “you’ll be in trouble if you touch it or refuse to let go”. It’s more like external control, as well as being reprimand-based. But even if people teach “leave” by means of reward, there is a difference.
I ran a course for therapy dogs and handlers. I said the dog has to leave food that has been placed on a low table, Most people said “if I tell her to leave it, she won’t touch it”. My reply was “That’s good as far as it goes, but it suggests to me that her default setting is to grab it unless she is restrained either physically or by command/cue”. What I like is to turn that around – the default is to leave it UNTIL the handler gives a release to take it. The default setting is internalised behavior, not command-based or externally imposed control.
I use the same principle for not barging through the door. The dog’s default is to wait until asked to come in, go out, say hello to the visitor at the door etc. The onus is on the dog to offer the calmness and controlled behavior.
How often do I see people who have been told that their dog should sit before being released in the park, engaged in a physical struggle with an over-excited dog, and then when the handler succeeds in forcing the dog into a sit position, they let the dog go. There is no point in this. I would wait until the dog has calmed him or herself down enough to sit and wait, which then earns the release.
Another example is in Treibball, where impulse control is needed. The dog has to be controlled around the ball, but still be motivated. The dog shouldn’t charge at the ball and grab it, bite it or paw at it. The dog has to go past the ball, turn around, wait and then push it. We achieve this by having a helper lift the ball away as soon as the dog tries to make a move to grab the ball. Eventually, when the dog has learned self-control, his or her reward is to be cued to push, which most dogs find rewarding.
The other thing I have been doing with anxious and reactive dogs is using the “security blanket” approach. We use pure shaping, with no luring, guidance or kickstarting to get the dog to offer to go to a small mat and eventually to lie down. This is the dog’s choice. We then shape signs of relaxation, such as lying down, curved body posture, lying on one thigh, head down, relaxed ear position and facial expression and so on.
The choice to be calm and relaxed is something the dog can learn and then learn to do in the face of some stress or challenge. We reinforce “good choices” but also increase the dog’s ability to self-regulate.
For excitable dogs, I like Ian Dunbar’s idea of “take the batteries out”. Teach the dog to “bounce” on cue. This can mean jumping up and down, or any hyped up activity, then alternate with stopping, sitting or lying down. Initially the handler can stop-start the dog, and with practice the dogs learn to go from highly excited to very calm and relaxed of their own accord.
So you see, there are many variations, but there is an underlying theme – get the dog to learn self-control and be rewarded for offering the appropriate behavior and the internal state that goes with it.