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Developing Self Control in Our Dogs

Updated: Jun 12, 2019

The ability to stay and look at a camera is just one example of self control in dogs

My new dog Ruby has no self control: She attacks the hose every time it's on, she snatches what she wants from other dogs, she goes over threshold on walks and attacks the other dogs without provocation. She also sprints through doorways, won't hesitate to claw up my legs jumping on me, and barks crazily when playing, or when she sees a stranger.

All of these behaviors may seem completely unrelated to one another, but all of them stem from Ruby's impulsive thoughts turning to behaviors with no intermediate guidance or check. This is lack of impulse control.

The lack of control is both emotional and behavioral. She gets too excited too quickly and aggresses against the other dogs due to over-flowing emotional turbulence; she sees things and takes them without a thought about the dog from whom she is stealing. If they tell her she can't have it she escalates immediately into a fight.

She's lucky she's cute.

She's also lucky that can teach self-control to our dogs.

Dog training is so much more than commands and teaching behaviors. Dog training is about teaching lifestyle choices, and helping our dogs navigate their lives with us. We can teach our dogs self control.

We teach it daily, incrementally; we also teach it across the board. Unlike a command, such as 'sit', self-control is taught by building the concept incrementally.We build it at doorways, and while playing. We build it through deliberate training (like flirt pole work and tug games), and day-to-day living, like walks, and feeding time, and when confronted with a stranger.

Ruby would love nothing better than to attack the hose, but I can't have her assaulting me every time I turn on the water, so she learns to wait.

I'm training Ruby self-control through multiple avenues. I want her to understand that having emotional and physical control of her actions not only makes me happy, but also feels better for her, after all, going over threshold and starting a fight can't be a comfortable emotional state to be in.

She is learning that the best way to activate a game of tug is to down until released or the game goes away. She has learned that barking the whole time she attacks the hose will cause the hose to stop; so she has learned to choose to be quiet to keep the game moving. She has learned that running into the house without permission just results in her being booted out again, so she may as well wait until her name is called. She is free to continue her behavior, but the payoff stops, so she finds a way to continue to get what she wants, while I get what I want. win/win.

However, some of her behaviors are more troubling than rushing through doors and biting at water hoses. She cannot control her emotional state on walks and targets dogs that she attacks from behind. She inflicts no damage, but it is certainly wildly inappropriate behavior than cannot be tolerated. Because the welfare of my own dogs' emotional states is paramount, this is an instance when I will take choice away from her until she learns better behaviors. I cannot allow her to continue her behavior around my dogs, as that is unfair to them.

So, Ruby drags a long line on walks so that she doesn't target a dog and launch an attack. I am able to observe her body language and step on the leash the second she focuses on a victim, stopping her in her tracks. I have, in this case, taken the choice away from her. She is not free to choose to attack my dogs.

Because she is not making choices, it may take longer for her to 'get' what she's supposed to do on walks (literally anything but attacking my dogs!) but, while she learns, my other dogs are safe from her unwarranted harassment and can walk in peace.

It is my belief that once dogs understand impulse control, they are able to generalize it fairly well, just as people are. Like people, they will also have self-control fails (I think it's fair to say every single potato chip eaten by an adult is a failure of self-control!).

Living with Ruby has forced me to think very specifically about what impulse control is, how I train it, what my expectations are, and how to grow it in a dog that has none.

I have found that I train it every day to my own dogs, without even thinking about it. That when it is not taught as a matter of course that it leads to a whole host of problems that people likely see as individual issues, but are in fact linked to this essential skill. By paying attention to Ruby's problems I have been able to better see how building specific impulse control skills for my dogs under circumstances where they struggle will help them as well.

All I want for every dog is for them to live their best lives. After all, that is all any one can ask, and yet, achieving this goal is not easy, it is not straightforward, so I try, and I ask my dogs to try, and I learn and change, and I ask my dogs to learn and change. That's all we can do.

And from all this effort we will find a way to build Ruby's best life.

She deserves no less. They all deserve no less.

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