Dogs don't come pre-programmed to display excellent self control in tempting or exciting situations. In most cases, their motto seems to be [ grab/run/leap/escape ] first, ask questions later. So, if you leave a plate of your food unguarded, a dog will kick himself if he doesn't at least try to nab the yummies. If you open a door, he may dash past you with wild abandon, just to see what's on the other side. If you're preparing his meal, the dog may think jumping on you and barking is the best strategy to hurry you along, as if he's shouting, "Are you a person or a three-toed sloth?!"
The nice thing is, with just a bit of training, we can teach our dogs to rein in these impulses and offer alternative behaviors that are more to our liking. And it's not because we want to exercise control over our dog's impulses for the sake of "being in charge." In many cases, impulse control exercises are a matter of safety. For example:
Your talented counter-surfer may steal food that's safe for people but toxic for dogs.
A dog that leaps out of an opened car door may find himself in the midst of traffic.
Escape artists who dash through open doors or gates to then head for the hills can be at risk if they encounter traffic or wild animals, not to mention possibly losing their home when the pet parent grows tired of repeat calls from animal control.
Your social pup may pull strenuously on leash to then leap all over an unknown dog as a way of 'saying hello,' putting him at risk of injury when an unfriendly dog rebuffs his advances.
Today, I'd like to share a really simple exercise you can try with your own dog at home. The goal is for the dog to wait politely (meaning he's being quiet and has all 4 paws are on the floor) as you hold his food bowl and then place it on the floor, only beginning to eat when you give him permission. In my experience, the ideal foundation skill to teach in this context is eye contact. In other words, instead of staring at the food bowl, the dog learns to give the person eye contact instead.
Below are two videos introducing this skill. At first, I keep the bowl well above Bond, so it's not overly tempting, and so he's more likely to be able to look at me instead of the bowl. The bowl is gradually presented closer to the floor, as he shows he's ready for a bit more challenge. Also, when we first begin, you'll notice I take the briefest bit of eye contact before releasing the bowl. As he improves, he begins to offer longer eye contact before I release him. When I use the word, "Yes," that's my way of telling Bond he got it right, and now the reward it coming. (You may want to layer in a specific release cue, like "okay.")
This same, simple concept of waiting and offering eye contact is the foundation for teaching a dog to wait at open doors, to keep his mouth off a toy or tuggie until given permission to get it, and to focus on you during leash walks when something tempting [squirrel, dog, neighbor] comes into view.
Impulse control exercises are so dang useful, and I really enjoy teaching them. I even produced a training DVD on this very topic. If I can help you with your own dog's training, please feel free to get in touch. :-)
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, puppy matchmaking services, and pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120
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