A well trained dog is always demonstrating good impulse control. If you have a dog who pulls on leash to go sniff a tree, doesn’t come when you call or steals food off the counter – you have an impulse control problem. All well trained dogs also demonstrate strong impulse control skills.
If you went to puppy class you have likely already done some impulse control training. Hold a treat in your hand and close your hand to form a fist. Let your dog or puppy sniff, lick and paw your fist, and eventually he will give up. Be patient, some dogs can be persistent. The moment your dog stops, open your hand and let him have the cookie. My experience is that even the most persistent dogs will demonstrate some impulse control after three to five trials.
Do a few more trials to make sure you have a strong behaviour. Note that the “cue” for impulse control at this stage is your closed fist. We’ll add some difficulty by offering your dog an opened hand with the treat on your outstretched palm. If your dog makes a move to get the cookie, close your fingers around the treat. Since the fist is a picture your dog is familiar with, he will likely resist and when he pulls back, you can open your palm again.
We’re going to change things up a bit here – instead of giving your dog the cookie in your hand, reward with another treat given from your other hand. Do a few more trials. Even with the cookie held out on your outstretched palm your dog should be actively resisting grabbing the cookie. Now is the time to add a cue to the behaviour you are building.
Adding a cue to the behaviour.
1. Say your verbal cue – “leave it” or “wait” are common ones.
2. Hold out the cookie in your open palm.
3. If your dog resists grabbing the cookie, mark the correct behaviour with a click, or “yes” and give him a treat with your other hand.
This is the foundation of your impulse control training. Now transfer this behaviour to more challenging scenarios. Can your dog resist a treat when it’s on the floor? When you toss it on the floor? The addition of motion makes this a bigger challenge for your dog. How about sitting and waiting when the door is being opened? Or sitting and waiting patiently while putting on his collar and leash before going for a walk? You can see that once you’re aware of impulse control, it is evident everywhere. Being aware of it makes it reinforceable.
Teach your dog that a more patient response to what he wants is a behaviour that is reinforceable. The great part is that your dog tells you what he wants the most at a given moment – so you can use that as your reward.
Build your dog’s impulse control slowly, in small, achievable steps. This is a critical foundation skill for your dog to master. A dog who puts aside what he wants and defers to you won’t happen overnight but it will be worth the work you put in.
Here’s the link to some video demonstrating the first step in impulse control training.