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— March 19, 2013 —

Icons, Triggers and Impulse Control —
Keys to understanding your dog’s problem behavior. Part 4.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Impulse Control is an often overlooked component of training. Impulse Control simply defined is one’s ability to delay gratification or resist their immediate desires, impulses or temptations that could harm themself or others. In other words, Impulse Control means simply self-control or self-restraint.

One of the things I enjoy most is training working dogs. Through another business I operate with a couple of partners, we train dogs for personal protection, protection sport and police patrol. You may have seen these dogs on television or in movies, chasing bad guys and biting them. Often these dogs look very aggressive and intimidating. This is of course by design. A police dog that doesn’t scare bad guys isn’t much of a police dog. It’s intense and physical training and the dogs truly enjoy their work.

To the casual observer, these dogs look to be attacking with reckless abandon, like an out of control beast. When trained properly, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The dogs are working under the direction of their handler and their behavior is completely predictable and under control.

While the average dog owner may have very little interest in sending their dog to bite bad guys, there is a lot to be learned from how working dogs are trained. When in “work mode” these dogs are extremely excited and easily Triggered to bite. What keeps them from attacking unpredictably is Impulse Control. That same Impulse Control can help dogs like Sidney who aggressively lunge at dogs for no apparent reason.

A discussion of Impulse Control cannot be had without mentioning the concept of stimulation level. A dog’s given response to any situation will be determined by how excited he is about that situation. That excitement level or stimulation level is dictated by a dog’s genetic makeup. A high drive German Shepherd Dog will respond differently to a strange noise than will a large laid back English Mastiff. This natural variation in stimulation level needs to be accounted for in training. Also, this discussion of Impulse Control will not relate to dogs who react out of fear. Determining whether a dog is reacting out of fear or from being overstimulated may require a visit to a professional trainer. If your dog is fearful, different techniques and methods will be called for.

In very general terms, if a dog is excited and acting out, petting during these moments will increase the dog’s excitement level. Whatever behavior the dog is displaying will intensify. If there is lunging or snapping, it will get worse with petting. Petting serves as reinforcement and we generally don’t want to reinforce bad behaviors.

Another topic that needs to be discussed in dealing with Impulse Control and stimulation level is the concept of correction. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I do not claim to be a “purely positive” trainer. I won’t go into the validity of the concept or how I feel about it, I will just say that I believe it is important to be able to give a dog an appropriately timed and properly delivered correction. A key point that must be made to avoid any misunderstanding is this. “You cannot teach a dog any behavior simply by correcting it.” In most cases, the correction is intended to reduce the dog’s excitement level in order to give it a command. That command will Trigger a behavior that was previously taught using positive reinforcement techniques. If a dog is overstimulated, however, you might as well be yelling at the wall. Your dog won’t even realize you are talking to him until you are able to reduce his excitement level.

Now, let’s go back to the police dog training. The dogs that do this work don’t bite because they are angry or scared. They bite because they are highly stimulated. When we initially start training a young dog for this, we tease him with a toy to excite him. This is called agitation work. While the puppy is pulling towards the toy, we pet him and encourage him to get more and more excited. That excitement gets channeled into the bite on the toy. The dog is then trained to bite different pieces of equipment, like the sleeve or bite suit and ultimately a real life bad guy. The concept of control is important when the dog needs to NOT bite, or to release a bad guy after biting him.

In order to gain that control, there is a point where we begin to introduce obedience to the dog during the bitework. Usually this is done with some amount of correction. The dog is worked up (agitated) into his high drive state (bordering on overstimulation). A command is given and the dog sometimes ignores it because he is too excited. If this occurs, a correction may be delivered by whatever training device is appropriate for the dog. Once the dog complies with the command, he is rewarded by being allowed to bite the equipment. This concept of obedience for bites is expanded upon and the dog eventually learns that the entire working scenario relies upon him exercising Impulse Control in order to receive the delayed gratification of being allowed to bite the equipment after he follows obedience commands.

A lot of this applies to dogs that get very excited very quickly and display possibly aggressive behavior. I decided to use the most extreme example, that of a working dog, to give some perspective. If these dogs can learn to be responsive during this intense type of work, I believe the average pet can learn to have some Impulse Control as well.

If you have a young dog, there are things you can do now to help prevent your dog growing up into a reactive nut-ball of a dog. There are games you can play with your young dog now, that will help develop Impulse Control later in life. If your dog loves to fetch, making him wait to chase the ball is a great way to teach him to reign in his excitement. Teaching him to wait to grab a treat on the floor is also a fine game. These games, if introduced to a young dog, will help to teach Impulse Control as the dog matures. They basically set your dog up to understand delayed gratification later in life. One of my favorite exercises is the “long down.” When the dog learns to hold his down for extended periods, he is exercising Impulse Control. Having to hold his down while everything happens around him can be very challenging, but the dog will always benefit from this exercise.

So, how does one use all this information to work on what can be a rather difficult situation? Next week, we’ll put it all together.