Originally posted December 2010
Several years ago, on an email list, a woman mailed in talking about how her dog had nearly died because it had climbed up a five foot tall book case and stolen some pain meds and eaten them. She was on a rant about how important it was to keep things under lock and key and how you just never knew what a dog might get into. I was the lone voice saying that she had bigger problems than the immediate veterinary emergency. Her problem, whether she recognizes it or not, is that her dogs lack impulse control.
About 60% of the dogs I see with behaviour problems have impulse control issues. They steal things off of tables and counters, they eat the pockets out of clothing, they bolt out the door, they pull on the leash-generally, what they have learned in their lives is that if they want to have something, they ought to pull harder, jump higher, try harder, act faster and they can get what they want.
One of the problems is that dogs don’t have a good sense of safe and dangerous when it comes to the important things in modern life. They don’t understand that pills could kill them, that certain mushrooms in the yard could be toxic, that chocolate at the least will cause gastric upset and at the worst will cause death. They don’t know that jumping over the wall that prevents us from falling over the cliff could be a disaster, they don’t know that running into traffic is dangerous; they just don’t understand.
For this reason, it is important to teach your dog self control. Self control means several things. The first thing it means is “just because you can see it doesn’t mean it is yours”. Think about taking a four year old to a buffet table. Just because he can see that marvellous cake with all the sweet gooey icing doesn’t mean it is his. If mom and dad are the kind of parents who want their kids to grow up to be an acceptable member of society, they help the kid to choose self control over self indulgence. And this is what we are missing in our dogs.
Lately a lot of my novice students seem to feel that if there is something that the dog can see or sense that the dog wants, they are excused from insisting on good manners. This is akin to allowing the four year old at the buffet table to reach out and stick his fingers in that tempting icing, lick them and then repeat. Heck, the way some of my students approach this, they would be egging the child on. Go ahead sweetie…one little lick won’t hurt anything! Well it will. It will hurt that child’s chances of landing a job when he grows up, it will hurt his chances of finding a mate, it will hurt his chances of living a normal life.
Most recently, I experienced this in the company of my service dog. I had an appointment to be at a local business for a photo shoot, and there was a resident “puppy”. This puppy was somewhere between 6 and nine months old. My service dog does not love puppies, and when he is vested, his job is to take care of me, so we had arranged ahead of time to have the puppy off the premises. Needless to say, this did not work out; the dog was onsite when I arrived. I stood by the door looking through the window, and was waved in. I watched to see that the dog was removed from the room before coming in. Just as I got my coat off, the owner of the dog appeared with the dog in tow, vaguely guiding him by the collar. “He just needs to say hi,” she said. “NO!” I replied. “My dog doesn’t like puppies.” “It will just take a moment, he needs to say hello” she shot back. “NO!” I replied again; “this is a mistake. You cannot greet this dog, he is a working service dog”, I repeated, and stepped between her dog and mine. Still she persisted. “This isn’t about YOUR dog, MY dog needs to just sniff noses.” My dog was jacketed and I was in the middle of an anxiety attack to begin with, which didn’t help much, but honestly, why does she think that her dog MUST greet every dog he meets? (incidentally, a GREAT article to read about this is Suzanne Clothier’s “He just wants to say hi” http://flyingdogpress.com/content/view/42/97/ )
This attitude of allowing our dogs everything they want, when they want it and how they want it creates more behaviour problems than you might at first imagine. We don’t live in a canine utopia, where they can have every bone, chase every ball, greet every person and every dog they wish. Teaching your dog the basics of self control can be a life saving move. Teaching your dog to ask for things before grabbing them is the bare minimum for safety. Consider for instance the dog who has learned to control his impulse to eat everything within his reach. When your house guest arrives with a box of chocolates in her bag, your dog might sit and look longingly at the object of his desires, but he won’t tear apart the bag and the box, gorging himself on a sweet that might ultimately kill him.
The old saw “begin with the end in mind” is very true. When dogs are young, if we allow them to pull on leash, we are teaching them that later on, they can pull with impunity, and that means that they will be at risk of pulling whoever is on the end of the leash into traffic. It means that the dog will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. It means that you also will be at higher risk of neck, back and shoulder injuries. And it means that later on, you will have to retrain your dog to do something other than what you taught him to do as a youngster. The easiest way to teach a dog to keep the leash loose is to never let him move forward when it is tight. EVER. This means that when he is young and you are in a rush to get from here to there, carry him. This means that until he is really good at the exercise, don’t go more than a couple of hundred feet at a time on leash. And this means making it in his best interest to keep that leash loose. It also means that you need to know what a loose leash means. A loose leash is a leash that makes a “J” shape between the dog and the person. If it is straight, you are not giving the dog a chance to learn what a loose leash is.
Pulling is the tip of the iceberg though. Just because you have a dog doesn’t mean you should not be able to put a sandwich on the table. Far too often I see dogs who think that if they can reach it, it is theirs. Someone once sent me an email called rules of ownership for toddlers; it went something like this. If I have it, it’s mine. If I had it before and now you have it, it’s still mine. If I can see it, it’s mine. If you have it and I want it, it’s mine. And just like with toddlers, dogs often think this way. If we encourage this thinking by supporting it by allowing the dog to learn that anything he can reach is his, then we are going to create an adult dog who will climb book cases to get stuff that is not theirs. We are going to create a situation where the dog is difficult to live with, is pushy and obnoxious, and who will not leave things alone when he ought to. One of my students recently told me that she would rather avoid having anything dangerous in her house than train her dog to automatically leave things that were not his. This sounds good in theory, but on closer examination, we have a big problem. The problem is that the dog doesn’t just live in a safe little box. We take him out on the street where chocolates are dropped, and antifreeze is dripped and we have guests to our homes who leave avocado (toxic!) dip within reach, or drop raisins (also toxic) on the floor.
Teaching a dog to ask if he can have something is the easiest way to ensure that he doesn’t take things he shouldn’t. If you take a treat in your hand and hold it out to the dog, and then close your hand if he takes it before he asks, and only open the hand up when he backs off the treat, you start to teach the dog that snatching doesn’t work. If you make the dog wait for a moment or two, you start to teach him that good things come to those who wait. Instead of thinking about teaching dogs to leave it, think about teaching dogs that if they back off the treat, they can get what they want when you tell them to “take it”. Once you have this working nicely in your hand, you can then move on to getting your dog to sit before he gets the thing that he wants. In small steps you can use this method to teach him first not to snatch things out of your hand, and then not to snatch things out of the hands of others and then not to take things off of chairs or the floor and then not to take things off of tables or plates. In the end, you want the dog to not take anything that you have not indicated is his. It takes about four months to achieve fluency, but this is an exercise that can and will save your dog’s life. The day that I dropped ten migraine pills out of a bottle and onto the floor, my dog backed up two steps and made eye contact with me, was the day that I figured out that an automatic “leave it” wasn’t just a party trick, it was a life skill.
Many people understand the idea of teaching their dogs to sit before they give them a meal. A good idea in theory-but I have seen this backfire. When the dog is dependent upon the person to tell them to sit and to “stay…..staay…staaay….staaaaay”, and then the person says OKAY and the dog rushes the food bowl, what you are teaching is not self control, but to be impulsive on cue. Not a particularly good idea. You are in essence teaching the dog to have an explosive start, which would be great if you were doing agility, but not so good if you want your dog to learn to have good social manners in the house. Instead, you can try a tactic of making your dog’s dinner and wait for him to sit. When he sits, say take it and THEN put down the bowl. Don’t prompt him, don’t cue him; teach him an automatic please. Once you have a basic please, you can start working on duration between the food bowl going down and the release by starting to bend down to put the bowl down BEFORE you say take it. If the dog gets up before you release, pick up the bowl and start over. Work at it until making the meal becomes the cue to the dog to back off, and wait for as long as it takes for you to make the meal, dance the tango, make soup, and when your dog is relaxed, tell him to take his dinner. This is a bit like going to a formal meal where grace is said-the guy who digs in before the blessing is seen to be a glutton and a boor. If you teach your dog to wait till told, he will be practicing self control every day. Just make sure that you don’t release your dog until you can see that he is relaxed, or you will create impulsivity on cue.
Tonight I had an interesting class with some beginner students. Every time I went to help one particular student, her dog would disengage and pay more attention to me than to her. Her explanation was interesting; she claimed that I was somehow magically more interesting to her dog than she was. My efforts to explain that actually she had actually taught the dog that greeting on the dog’s terms was what was expected seemed to fall on deaf ears. Like the dog in the shop, this handler believed that her dog should greet everyone; after all, isn’t that what we teach in puppy class? That the dog should greet two to four hundred people in his first five months? Sure! Absolutely, your puppy should meet two to four hundred people in the first five months (or better yet, in the first four months), but we don’t mean to imply that the dog should be permitted to rush everyone he sees and interact at will. Like a young child, being taught to greet politely will pay off later in big ways. Imagine your teenager, applying for his first job, greeting his future boss with the kind of full body enthusiasm people seem to think is normal in dogs!
|D’fer and Laurel show self control and loose leashes at the Royal Ontario Museum|
Before your dog is 16 weeks old, socialization is the single most important priority in the dog’s life, but second to that, and for the rest of his life, impulse control is the next most important item on the agenda. My service dog, who I spoke about earlier in this article, is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. D’fer is a passionate, intense dog, who knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to get it. These traits are important in a dog bred to fetch ducks in the Chesapeake Bay in November-he wouldn’t be much good as a retriever if he were to say “sorry, no, the water is too cold today” or even “I was going to come up the rocky bank, but that dense brush got in my way.” D’fer, I am proud to say, has learned that he can have his heart’s desire-anything he wants, if he just asks nicely, by backing off what he wants, and looking at me, and sitting. He has learned the most important lesson of all. The dog controls the dog. And I control everything else.