Curb The Urge:
What does impulse control mean?
Let’s face it - dogs are opportunists! Some are more biddable and handler focused than others from a very young age, but even still, they pay close attention to what we reinforce and then continue to replicate those behaviors. As we give our dogs rules and boundaries for being able to access rewards (like food, toys, prey, social interaction with other dogs and people, etc...), we inevitably have to help them to control themselves around the things they love most. Impulse control is just that - helping your dog “get it together” and think clearly when faced with their absolute favorite stuff!
What does your dog LOVE? Make a list of your dog’s 5 biggest reinforcers, and your dog’s 5 biggest impulse control issues/distractors - note that some of these things may be the same!
Set your own goals and boundaries. No two dog/handler teams will have the same background in training, goals, or experiences. Is there something specific you are hoping to gain from this class?
Define threshold -
According to Merriam-Webster, threshold is:
1 : the plank, stone, or piece of timber that lies under a door : sill
2 a : gate, door
b (1) : end, boundary; specifically : the end of a runway
(2) : the place or point of entering or beginning : outset
- on the threshold of a new age
3 a : the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced
- has a high threshold for pain
b : a level, point, or value above which something is true or will take place and below which it is not or will not
Let’s pay attention to 3a. This is what we are referring to when we talk about threshold with our dogs. If they are over threshold, say barking, lunging, whining at something, it is going to be difficult if not impossible for learning to take place for them. Their brain is already WAY too overwhelmed to make good decisions. In most cases, retreating and giving more space away from the trigger is the best choice. While we never want to purposefully put our dogs in such a state of mind, it is important to learn what your dog’s body language looks like before they might go over threshold. When learning impulse control, we want to keep the dog in such a mindset so that they are able to think clearly.
Define Premack - The gist of the Premack principle in dog training is that if the dog completes a task for me (such as a sit or hand touch), they will be rewarded by experiencing a life reward (like getting to sniff a really smelly spot on the ground, or being let off leash to go swimming). In other words, “if you do X behavior, you get to engage in Y activity.”
OLMEC System (Opting to Leave it and Making Excellent Choices)
1. Stationary - For step 1, our goal is for the dog to remain calm and thinking in the face of a reward/heavy distractor while it is stationary (or mostly stationary). What this would mean is for a piece of food to be not moving in our hand or placed gently on the ground, or for a favorite toy to just BE there.
2. In Motion - The object of our dog’s desire remains stationary, but now we are going to have the dog in motion near it!
3. Moving - This is the most difficult of all, as now the dog must display impulse control over something that is moving! Examples would be a piece of food being tossed, a tug/flirt pole being moved on the ground, or even a favorite dog or person friend walking by them.
OLMEC Step 1 with Food - Stationary
For this step, begin with a lower value food - so something like kibble, Cheerios, etc... If you have a dog that isn’t really into food, I do still want them to participate in these exercises. In that case, you might jump right up to their highest value treat reward.
Start with a few things your dog knows and likes doing (such as sits or a favorite trick). I want the dog to know that you do have rewards on you! After doing a few repetitions and rewarding for those, casually have your open hand palm facing up (with some food in it still) and see what your dog does.
Do they just go for it? That’s fine! Close your hand (don’t move it backwards, don’t say “no,” just close your hand in to a fist). If your dog persists, then let them! As soon as they back up, open your hand again, and reward if they continue to leave it (as in, one treat, then another, then another). Once they have left your hand alone for a short period, do some more tricks with them! Repeat until they are leaving your hand immediately as you “offer” it to them.
Now we are going to try with a behavior. Sit is the easiest one for this since some dogs will offer it anyway in order to get a reward. Cue your dog to sit, either at your side in a heel position, or in front of you. Reward for the initial sit, then have your hand out and open like before. Reward continuously for a few seconds (one treat after another), then release your dog using whatever release word you normally use. To up the ante, now you get to start moving a little bit before going back to your dog to reward from your hand. Release your dog regularly and then reposition them so that they don’t anticipate getting to move!
Time to bring out that empty food bowl! For this part, I don’t care what position your dog is in. Place the bowl on the ground with nothing in it. Your dog might go in to take a look - that’s OK! We aren’t trying to trick them!
Place a piece of food in the bowl, and see what your dog does. If they don’t move for it, great! Pick it up out of the bowl and reward. If they go in for the food, use your hands to cover the bowl, providing a deterrent. Wait until they back up a little, let your hands up, then go in to give them a reward. Add a few more pieces once they are consistently backing off of the bowl, and do some one after another rewards (not too much time in between rewards at first!).
Once your dog is confident, add more positions with your open hand (such as your dog in a down, or stand), and add more time in between treats you give from the bowl. You should also try these exercises with higher value foods!
OLMEC Step 2 with Food - In Motion
Remember, by “In Motion” we mean that the DOG is in motion, not the food. We are going to start this step with our bowl. By now, your dog should believe that the bowl is a “no go” - they aren’t going to get food from it (YET!). For this step, make sure that you are able to cover it (or you have a helper able to do that) if need be! Again, we aren’t saying “leave it,” or “no” or anything.
We are going to introduce have your dog change positions in the presence of the bowl. Put them in a sit, then mark and reward that. Put a piece of food in the bowl. They shouldn’t go for it, but if they do, defer to Step 1.
Now we are going to have them go in to another position, OR complete a behavior they are very fluent in (down or a spin are a couple of examples). Mark and reward that! Then you can “double up” your reward with the treat from the bowl.
Add more food to the bowl, and mix up rewards from your hand and those you take out of the bowl (so the dog doesn’t quite know where the food is going to come from!). Also be sure to change YOUR position! Start to stand up if you haven’t already done so, or you can even work while the bowl is on the ground and you are sitting in a chair.
After your dog has become confident with doing things near the bowl, you can now try other food items in other places! For these, however, you might try to have your dog on a leash to prevent them from making a mistake, or a helper nearby to cover things up for you. Good places to try would be food on the coffee table, or on the counter (depending on your dog’s height).
Again, the idea for this step is that we are having the dog move (by changing positions and responding to other cues) in the presence of high value food. If your dog is not succeeding, make things easier for them! Add distance between them and the food, or make sure that the things you are asking them to do are not too difficult.
Make a list of your dogs 5 biggest reinforcers, and your dog’s 5 biggest impulse control issues/distractors (some of these may be the same!). This is good information for you to be thinking about as we go through the course.
Write it out! What specifically do you hope to work on with this class? What are your goals? Refer to this often throughout the lessons as you begin to see the positive changes in your dog.
Complete OLMEC Steps 1 and 2 with food.