The Art of Teaching K9 Self-Control

Anyone that has ever been around a dog that lacks self-control understand the annoyance as well as, the potential danger that these behaviors present. The question is must we just endure these temperament traits, or can we effectively teach them alternative behaviors? Teaching your dog, the art of self-control or impulse control is fundamental to the canine behavior development. Training your dog to control its urges is a task that should be on the top of every K9 owner’s task list.

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Teaching our dogs to exercise self-control is in fact quick and easy once you have a basic understanding of the psychology of impulsivity. Impulsivity is a psychological term that can be summarized; as acting on ones feeling with only short-term gratification in mind and little consideration for any potential consequences. Impulsive behavior plays a key role in various disorders in humans, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder or substance abuse disorders. This behavior is not limited solely to diagnosed disorders; impulsive behavior can be found in children and adults of all walks of life. Marketing and sales teams from various industries specifically target this natural impulsive mechanism in product positioning throughout retails stores. Next time you are checking out at a convenience store look at the items placed around the counter. This is an attempt to exploit the impulsive nature of humans.  

Canines are no different! It’s not breaking news to anyone, that dogs can be impatient and pushy. Their desire to get out of their crate, chase a ball, jump on people, push someone out of the way to get out the door, rush up and down stairs; often overrides any sense of safety and/or comfort for both themselves and any nearby humans.  

Owners are more likely to tolerate these types of energetic and impulsive outbursts if the dog is smaller.  A 5 lb. Chihuahua jumping on us as we walk through the door certainly doesn’t present the same challenges as a 75 lb. German Shepherd. Regardless of weight, size and strength, there are situations where pushy pooches can put themselves in harm’s way. Rushing through an open door can lead to disastrous consequences.

Research conduct at Vanderbilt University on impulsivity directly links this type of behavior to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers making this neurotransmitter vital in attention, memory, mood, learning and anticipating pleasure. In other words, dopamine equals motivation. This chemical within the brain helps associated specific activities with rewards. It is in dopamine deficiency that we find the common link between impulsive activity and  ADHD, ADD, bipolar disorder, and addictions of all kinds.

A lot of the readers of this article are thinking; “Herman, I just want to make my dog stop knocking me over every time I let them out. Not learn about neuropsychology”. So, what does all this dopamine talk have to do with your dog’s lack of self-control?

Dopamine is extremely powerful, and if you want to make behavioral modifications then you must learn to embrace the idea that this chemical neurotransmitter is critical in dog training. If we can manage to control the production dopamine, we are essentially altering the canine’s behavior. Canine’s with higher levels of dopamine are more likely to work harder and accept more challenging tasks in order to receive the reward.

The effects of nutrition in canine behavior.

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Low dopamine levels can be a result of poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, obesity, or thyroid disorders. Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list of every cause for low dopamine levels in your dog. But, lets address the nutritional aspects which are the easiest to control. How and what we feed our animal companions will directly affect not only their body, but also their mind, which in turn affects behavior. Providing proper food with the correct nutritional balance can literally change an animal’s brain chemistry.

Dopamine is comprised of amino acid 1-tyrosine which is commonly found in protein-rich foods. Consuming foods that are high in 1-tyrosine can help ensure that the basic building blocks necessary for dopamine synthesis are present. Examples of foods that are known to directly increase dopamine are: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and soy products.

In addition to the nutritional improvements that can be taken, it is equally as important to increase your companions physical activity (like walks and playtime). Nutrition and physical fitness set favorable conditions to successful behavioral modifications.

However, in many cases the primary issue with your dog’s lack of self-control is simply they have never been taught polite and appropriate behavior.

Teach your dog some manners.

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Now let’s get down to the teaching our dogs some manners and appropriate behaviors. The key elements to successful behavioral modification are Clarity, Patience and Persistence. Impulse control (or self-control), may be one of the most important concepts to teach any dog. Unfortunately, our natural tendencies to deal with impulsiveness often get in the way of effective teaching. When we try to punish the behavior, we often introduce confusion and chaos in the situation, making it harder for the dog to settle down. Instead, simply preventing the dog from getting what he/she wants while out of control and waiting for calm and polite behaviors, will make a world of difference.

Impulse control is useful in every situation, from calmly waiting to be hooked on the leash before going out for a walk (instead of jumping around) to patiently sitting for the food bowl, for the ball to be thrown or for the owner’s attention. When applying the following principles in specific situations, the dogs learn patterns and habits they can generalize and help them stay calm and manageable in all situations:

  1. Practice patience! Staying calm and composed is critical. Frustration and irritation will only contribute to the dog’s excitability and make it harder for him to calm down. We can’t ask the dog to slow down if we’re in a rush for results. Be prepared to spend the time that it takes for the dog to calm down.
  2. Identify what it is your dog wants: that will be the reward. Depending on the situation, the dog may want to go out, your attention, food, a toy or playtime with another dog.
  3. Whatever the dog does immediately before getting what he/she wants will be rewarded and therefore repeated. If the dog pushes her way out of the door and manages to get out, they learn that pushing their way out gets them what they want. If jumping up to greet us gets attention (even when we’re yelling or pushing them off), they’ll do it again next time. The key is to patiently wait for an alternative behavior, one that we want the dog to repeat.
    • A typical example is hooking the leash to the dog’s collar before going out for a walk. Most dogs get very excited and start jumping up as soon as we grab the leash. You can just stand there and wait until they calm down; or you can ask your dog to sit and only approach them with the leash when he’s sitting down. If he gets up (which he will at first), we simply take the leash away and wait for him to sit again. It doesn’t take much for the dog to learn that only sitting calmly will get the leash on!
  4. Practice MORE patience!
  5. Pick the behavior that you want to reward and wait for it. As soon as the dog performs that behavior, like keeping all four paws on the ground, staying quiet for a few seconds or sitting, reward that behavior by giving the dog what he wants. It will only take a few repetitions for the dog to start offering the desired behavior instead of the one you’re trying to stop.
  6. Be consistent! Teaching is effective when we’re consistent. If you allow jumping one day and the next day, because you’re in our work clothes we no longer tolerate it, it’s confusing to the dog and a source of stress. Once we chose to work on a specific behavior, no matter how tired or ready, we need to follow through with the training protocol with the confidence that our efforts will pay off.
  7. Look for opportunities to teach the dog calm and controlled behavior, such as:
    • Asking the dog to sit and wait for your cue before eating his meal
    • Waiting for the dog to sit and wait for your cue before jumping in and out of the car;
    • Waiting for the dog to sit and wait for your cue before getting out of the crate;
    • Waiting for the dog to have all four paws on the ground before giving them attention when come home from work
    • Teaching the dog to ‘settle’ on cue.

Consistently practicing these techniques is key to ensuring your dog becomes calmer, more focused and easier to control in everyday life activities.