Reinforcement Zone

Emotional self-control, otherwise known as impulse control, is a skill that most dogs need to learn. Dogs are opportunists, meaning they will do what works to get what they want and take what they can get in the moment. A lack of impulse control can result in problem behaviours such as chasing cars, counter surfing, snatching food, door dashing, jumping to say hi, barking at moving objects, etc. It can also lead to dangerous consequences. 

The goal with impulse control is to teach your dog that by giving you what you want, they will get what they want. E.g. you want to sniff that tree, you can as long as you don't pull me face first there. They learn to work with you, rather than struggle against you. 

Impulse control is a lot deeper than just doing a behaviour. It is a state of mind. Your dog is managing their own impulses, emotions and behaviours internally without human input. They are choosing to do an alternative behaviour because they want to. Our job is to help shape these alternative behaviours to be that of a calm, cooperative and controlled nature.  

A dog that has self control is better behaved and less demanding or needy. But more importantly rather than getting frustrated or overwhelmed for the need of instant gratification, your dog will fill more in control, confident and calmer of their environment. 

When teaching any sort of game that as a result teaches impulse control you first want to show your dog that rewards come from you and not just the environment. And if the environment is part of the reward, that you control their access to the reward. The second element is to show you dog how they can earn the reward. The behaviour you choose is completely up to you. However, it can be helpful to take into account what behaviours your dog already naturally offers in other situations and shape them in a way to benefit and achieve the current outcome. 

The first impulse control game to play with you dog is Aeroplane Feeding. The goal is to deliver a treat all the way to your dog's mouth without them jumping, snatching or coming forward to get the treat. Over time you will increase the distance that the treat has to come in from and the speed of which it comes in. The slower the treat is delivered and the further away you start the harder it is for you dog, in essence you are asking for impulse control. 

How to teach Look:

  • Step 1: Excitement and anticipation - Create excitement and anticipation by hyping your dog up with play. If your dog is naturally already white excitable or energetic you might not need to work very hard or at all. Mid play freeze with your arm up in the air with a treat pinch between your thumb and fingers. 

  • Step 2: Default sit and look - For the game the aeroplane feeding to start, your dog needs to default sit and be looking at your hand in the air. That is your cue to start the aeroplane coming down. If they don't sit straight away after you freeze be patient. Don't command them to sit, they need to control and think for themselves. If after 5 seconds they haven't offered you a sit, reset the game and start again. If after the second time they still can't seem to sit reassess and change the environment. 

  • Step 3: Aeroplane-ing the treat - Now bring your hand towards your dog's nose to deliver the treat. 

  • Step 4: Same speed - For each repetition your hand must come in the whole way at the same speed. You can change the speed from repetition to repetition just not during. 

  • Step 5: Look at your hand - Your dog must watch your hand come the whole way in. If at any stage your dog looks away or takes their eyes off you hand just pause the game and wait for them to return focus. To pause the game simply freeze where you hand is and don't bring it closer to your dog. Hold it there until they focus on it again. If they don't return focus reassess environment and try again in an environment where they can achieve success. The reason why you don't want to keep aeroplane-ing your hand in when they aren't looking is because they aren't having to implement impulse control and as a result they are not learning. All of a sudden the food is right there in front of their mouth and they didn't need to work to get it. They don't understand what they are getting it for. 

  • Step 6: If they jump or come forward -  If your dog jumps or comes forward to get the treat, don't jerk your hand back as this will only encourage them to jump more. Instead, tuck the treat into your hand and cover it in a fist. The most important part, is do not allow your dog to get the treat. After they jump wait for your dog to calm, settle, sit and look at your hand again for the game to continue. 

  • Step 7: Taking the treat gently - Your dog is to only take the treat gently when you reach their mouth. They can't come forward to get the treat. Your hand must always go the entire way in. If you get lazy with this you will accidentally shape your dog to meet you further and further forward and eventually they will have to move taking away from the whole concept of the dog learning to control themselves. 

  • Step 8: Release command - Once your dog understands the concept of taking the treat gently from your hand, issue a release command "okay" for your dog to take the treat. To do this bridge your dog for staying sitting as your hand comes towards their mouth and then follow with the command "okay" as they come forward to eat the treat. 

  • Step 9: Proof Aeroplane Feeding via 4 D's - Now that your dog really understands that it is worth it for them to stay seated and wait for the food to come to them, you want to proof this behaviour so it is resistant to motivation competitors in real life. Think duration, distance, distraction and difficulty issued by anyone, anywhere, anyway. Always set your dog up to succeed and have realistic expectations.