Teaching Our Dogs to Control Their Impulses.
Dogs do not come with an “off switch”. The ability to wait calmly for what they want is not something
that comes naturally for them. They also don’t come with a built in control of their impulses or frustration. Dogs tend to want to match the energy around them, and not being able to join in and show their full exuberance can be really difficult for them.
One common instance of this is in dogs who live with children. Especially young dogs who live with young children. Kids are loud and high pitched, and they love to run. It is really hard for our dogs, especially the younger ones, to not want to join in with the kids. Unfortunately when they join in and play the way they want to, that usually means some body slamming and possibly some nipping, and that isn’t super fun for the kids. It can be scary depending on the dog, for both kids and parents and unfortunately ends up meaning that the dog spends a lot of time shut away.
The good news is that there are some skills we can teach our dogs to help them make better choices in these instances. Of course, part of adjusting this situation is adjusting our behavior and understanding that our dogs are not perfect, and are just trying to show us how they feel. We cannot expect them to know what to do if we do not teach them and help them.
Step one is to manage the behavior as much as possible. Especially if your dog is nipping or slamming into people, we need to keep everyone safe. If no one can be available to work the dog, put them somewhere that they can be away from the chaos and fun. You can do this by setting them up in a crate, or behind door or baby gate. I find it nice to give them something to work on while they are shut away, like a stuffed kong. This way it is not a punishment and they will get to enjoy something too.
The most important step is to commit to working through this behavior. If we want our dogs to respond appropriately to exciting things, we have to teach them what the correct way to respond is. With all behaviors that need fixing, I highly recommend setting up a private lesson or two so that a trainer can make sure that you are dealing with over excitement, and go over the best ways to work on it with you. However, there are a couple of exercises I am going to go over that can help you until you can schedule a lesson.
In our last blog post, Holiday Food Safety, we went over how to begin teaching leave it. Leave it is a great exercise to start building impulse control. Through this exercise dogs start learning the concept of waiting for what they want. It is also helpful to have your dog on leash around chaos, with someone dedicated to working with them. You can work on obedience skills that they already have, leave it, or just rewarding general calmness. My other favorite game for teaching these concepts to our dogs is Jazz Up and Settle.
Jazz Up and Settle is all about teaching our dogs to be able to go from doing something really exciting, to thinking and offering calm behaviors. Ideally you want to have as many people as possible practice this with your dog. Start by getting your dog a little excited. Move around quickly, get excited and squeaky, for a few seconds. Then stop and ask your dog for a sit or down (your choice). If your dog jumps on you or nips at you, that’s too exciting. Take it down a notch. Do this a few times, marking and rewarding when your dog is able to perform the sit or down. After a few repetitions, stop cueing the sit or down, and wait to see if your dog will offer it. If they do, mark and treat! If not, do it a few more times with cueing the behavior. As your dog is able to offer the behavior and is doing so quickly when you stop, get a little more exciting each time. The goal is to practice this until you can be running around like a maniac and your dog simply follows, waiting for an opportunity to offer a sit or down.
Check out this video to get an idea of what Jazz Up and Settle can look like:
When you have a dog who can’t seem to switch off, these are the best places to start. Remember, we have to show them what we want from them. If you need help creating that “off switch” in your dog, don’t hesitate to give us a call!