Impulse Control

Unlike my prior dogs, Lyra has had almost no impulse control training.  That's because she rarely wants anything badly enough to experience the conflict between cooperating with me or taking what she wants directly.    The things that Lyra wants badly enough to create conflict are things I do not wish to build her interest in by allowing her to indulge - examples are chasing dogs and squirrels.

Lyra's cooperative nature is a problem.  Since she is naturally cooperative and compliant, I don't have opportunities to show her that it is in her best interest to cooperate with me.  Then when I do find myself in a training situation that creates a high level of arousal, such as herding (which I'm contemplating for her), I'm setting myself up to fail when I ask her for control.

For a trainer who wants to use positive reinforcement techiques (R+), developing internal self control in exchange for access to motivators is absolutely essential, especially when the sport you are interested in allows the dog to be self reinforced even when they are uncooperative.  Herding, field work and protection all come to mind - the dog works at a distance from the handler; normally off leash and close to the thing they want (decoy, birds or sheep).  They can easily ignore the handler and still be gratified by whatever it is that they wanted. Use of artificial aids such as leashes or compulsive devices such as e-collars work great - when the dog is wearing them.  I'm not interested in controlling her; I need her to control herself.

Contrast this with agility or obedience, where the handler can simply remove access to the food and toys.  It is much easier to control motivators in performance events than in working sports.

Now, those are extremes; all sports have elements that are easier or harder to control but you should be able to get the basic picture.

Last week I saw the beginnings of an opportunity.

Lyra's interest in playing in the pool area has been growing dramatically; so much so she is beginning to scream uncontrollably when she realizes that it's time to swim.  My opportunity has arrived; I can control access to the pool through the pool gate, and I don't mind if I'm building her love of swiming.  Bingo!

The rule are simple and cumulative.

1.  Lesson one.  Sit/stay and look where you wish,  and I'll open the gate.  Unfortunately this one is not on tape.  This was the most dramatic lesson of all since it took several minutes to get the first sit.  That's ok; I'm patient.

The following four lessons are on tape, in their entirety, including a major mistake on my part in the second lesson.  By the fourth lesson, the amount of thinking and self control that she is expressing is self evident.

Note that the total training time is only a few minutes here, plus a few additional minutes on the first day.

If I want to take this further (which I will), I will work this program with each dog separately, asking them to wait for their name to go through the gate.  When each dog can do this individually, I'd bring two dogs to the gate together, and release them one at a time.

You can apply this method - patiently waiting for the dog to make the right choice, anywhere you need it.  It beats hitting, yelling and shocking, and has much better long term results, since each time the dog performs correctly the training is reinforced.  Methods based in punishment erode over time because the dog isn't experiencing the punisher unless they are wrong - all animals learn much faster by being right than by making mistakes.  Methods based in reward (access to the pool) become stronger over time since each success reaffirms to the dog that their decision was rewarded.

Note:  In the first video, I take Lyra by her scruff to prevent her from going through the gate.  This is not a correction; it's simply management - I need to get one dog in and it's the easiest method for keeping her out.  If you can't tell if this is a correction or not, simply watch for her response.  She could care less.

And...strictly for entertainment...this is what Raika does when she gets into the pool.  This never ceases to amaze me:



Thanks for sharing this, Laura! I like that idea…


This is really great; thanks so much for sharing this, Denise, and for sharing the video. I have been eager for a solution to help our GSD exit her crate calmly (she gets SO amped up), and I should have realized that it’s not going to be a fancy protocol, but rather this process of “impulse control,” repeated again and again and again, every day. Thanks so much for the work that you do and your efforts to train dogs in a gentle, thoughtful way.


Good stuff! Never any need for verbal or physical reprimands, just control access to the reinforcement they get from the wrong choice. Lucky dogs to have a pool to swim in! For those familiar with Susan Garrett’s Crate Games For Motivation and Control DVD, this is an extension of that, with the pool gate substituting for the crate door. A dog who knows Crate Games will get this game instantly. Sit means sit until I release you, no matter what the distraction.


Hello Elaine,
I believe you misread the blog; “work” vs “performance” has nothing to do with intensity at all = it’s about whether I control the reinforcers and how easily a dog can self reinforce. I have never seen an agility dog run a course for 10 minutes with no handler in site (most I’ve ever seen is about five obstacles before they realize they are alone) but Ive seen plenty of herding dogs work sheep with no handler interaction at all – the sheep themselves provide all of the stimulation necessary. That makes for two very different issues with regards to the importance of early (and extremely thorough) impulse control training, if you choose to train without compulsion.

Connie Kaplan

Loved the video. I have done some stuff like this with Soba. Really great video illustration of the blog post.

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