Teaching Impulse Control: A Valuable Lesson for Real Life Dog Training

shutterstock_129885317The other day I was taking my dogs to the park. One is a rescue that had been kept in a backyard and a crate for most of the first year of his life. He is high energy and came to me with no impulse control. I have been training him to “wait” at every door in the house and he will “wait” when the car door is open in our driveway at our home. He does very well at home. But I am having a problem generalizing this cue to the park. He knows where we are and he is beside himself with excitement.

On this particular day I was not thinking about training but other pressing matters I needed to deal with. Note to self: be mentally present with your dogs in all situations. Before I could even get the back of the SUV open and give my “wait” cue, Shadow bolted out of the car, knocking me to the ground. I was a bit surprised to find myself there! So I got up, dusted myself off and stomped off to find Shadow. He was already in the ball field ready to play. I was in a hurry that day, as most of us are these days. But I had a choice to make. Did I use the time to throw the ball and exercise the dogs so they would be tired later, or do I use this as a teaching opportunity? As far as Shadow was concerned, that event was over and it was time to “play ball”. But that little voice inside kept saying, “go back to the car”.

I went back to the car. This time instead of a leash, I put a long line on Shadow. I was going to be ready if he bolted and I needed to step on the leash. And bolt he did. And guess where I ended up? On the ground again and really mad. But I was able to grab the long line and put him back in the car. And although I was mad, I would not let Shadow know that. What would be the point? He did not know what I wanted and he was not thinking about anything except getting to that field.

Something had to change. Continuing to open the door and ask for a “wait” was too much for him to handle. Trainers have a saying: “be a splitter, not a lumper”. Meaning split what you are training into the smallest pieces possible so the dog understands what it is that you are asking. Build on small successes until you reach the finished behavior that you want. So we worked with the door open. Before I could move forward. I needed his attention. It would be impossible to teach him anything without it. So I waited. I did not ask for it or nag him with a “watch me” cue. I had control with the leash and he would look anywhere but at me almost trembling to get out of the car. Looking at me must be his choice. Finally after several minutes he looked at me. Jackpot! Chicken rained from the sky. Now I had him. He was able to focus on me enough to start working. He was able to do simple obedience tasks for me like sits and downs in the back of the SUV. Now I could begin to ask for a “wait” and reward him. Then “wait” and take one step away from the car. Gradually I was able to get 10 feet away from the car.

I was going to end it there and just go play ball. But I had to test it. I gingerly opened the back of the car, saying “wait” as it lifted. And there he was sitting patiently waiting for me to release him! Total training time 15 minutes. And then it was time to play ball! A reward for a job well done.

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Positively Expert: Donna Elliott

Donna Elliott is the owner of Mutts With Manners in Atlanta, Ga. Donna is a certified dog trainer through the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.


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