Dog Training

Help Your Dog Learn Self Control

Give your dog the tools to control himself, even in the face of excitement!

We’ve all seen dogs who exude impulse control – the ones who are calm in the face of excitement, and patient when it comes to getting what they want. Of course, we’ve all seen those dogs who are lacking impulse control, too – dogs who can’t seem to handle excitement and become overexcited, pushy, or reactive. Sometimes that lack of impulse control results in problem behaviors such as chasing cars, barking for balls, and jumping to say hi. Can dogs who are lacking impulse control learn this important life skill? Absolutely!

Relaxing Is Rewarding

Many dogs who have trouble with impulse control really don’t understand that being calm is an option. For these puppies and dogs, learning that they can settle and that calm behavior is rewarding is the first step. Here are two activities you can incorporate into your daily life to help your dog learn that a calm, relaxed state is always a good option.

First, simply catch your dog in the act of being relaxed, for example, when she has settled on her bed or is sunning on the patio. When you see your dog settled, approach calmly with quiet praise or a gentle touch, and then drop a treat right near her paws or nose.

The first few times you do this, your dog may get up and follow you around to see if more treats might be forthcoming. If she does, simply go back to what you were doing without giving her more attention. After a few repetitions, your dog will learn to settle right back in after being rewarded.

A second activity is to reward your dog for relaxing at your feet. Start with your dog on a short leash so he can’t wander off or engage in another activity. Go to a nice quiet place. Stand or sit and wait for your dog to lie down. Please don’t cue your dog or otherwise encourage him to lie down. You may have to wait a long time – longer than you’d like to! – but just keep waiting. (This game is also a good way for people to practice impulse control; it really is best to wait for the dog to offer the behavior!)

When your dog offers the down, calmly say, “Good dog” and drop a treat between his front legs. You can offer additional treats to help your dog stay relaxed and settled.

Tips: Don’t use a clicker or other reward marker for this exercise, as this may encourage excitement instead of calm. If your dog is staring at you, do not treat. Wait until he is no longer thinking about the food before you drop another treat at his feet.

Sit and wait is one of the most common impulse-control exercises because it works! Impulse control is in action as the dog learns to hold the sit or stay seated while you move away. Impulse control can be reinforced by generously rewarding when your dog stays sitting, even in the face of increasing distractions.

To make sit and wait fun, try adding “sit for everything” into your daily life. More specifically, ask your dog to sit before he gets anything he finds fun and valuable: Sit before walks. Sit to start tug, fetch, and chase games. Sit for treats and dinner. Sit before snapping off the leash for a romp in the woods. Whatever your dog gets excited about, have him sit and wait before doing it. Your dog will soon associate sitting and being patient with the opportunity to have fun and engage in enjoyable activities.

Tips: At first, simply request a brief sit from your dog before releasing him for fun or food. What if your dog doesn’t sit when you ask? Put more distance between your dog and the source of the excitement and try again. Gradually work closer to the excitement and extend the time your dog sits. Be sure to reward your dog when he starts to anticipate the sit and offers it without your asking. This is impulse control at work!

Get High and Settle

An important skill for impulse control is the ability to settle in the face of excitement. My favorite game for helping dogs learn to quickly calm down when they are super “high” is a tug/down/tug game. To play this game, your dog will need to understand a “Drop it” cue, a “Down” cue, and a release such as “Okay” or “Free.”

When you first play this game, do so at an intensity level that is low enough to keep your dog calm. Initiate a game of tug with whatever cue you use, such as “Tug!” or “Get it!” After just a few seconds, use your cue for asking your dog to drop the toy. When he drops it, immediately say “Okay” or use your release cue, and then start the game again. Repeat this first step a couple of times until your dog gets the idea that dropping the toy is what keeps the game going.

Over time, you can increase the intensity of the game so that your dog learns to listen, play, stop, and settle even in the face of increasing excitement.

Tips: If your dog gets overexcited in this game, play a very calm version of it with just a moment or two of tug. If your dog does not like to tug, try another similar “get excited and settle” game such as running around together with a stop and settle. Or, play with a flirt pole (a toy on the end of a rope, which is fastened to a pole) to get your dog running, and then incorporate the stop and settle.