Dogs have strong impulses by nature; certain breeds have certain impulses that are stronger than others – for example, terriers may be more likely to want to chase than a pug, but that pug may have a harder time waiting patiently for their food. We are going to talk a little more about your dog’s impulses, how to know when to train impulse control, and ten games to work on impulse control with your dog.
What is impulse control?
There’s a common misconception that impulse control means working to eliminate impulses altogether. Impulses are a natural part of how your dog’s brain is wired and attempting to go against that will just leave you and your dog frustrated. The goal is to help your dog explore their impulses in a positive way and be able to manage them. We want to give our dogs plenty of opportunities to have fun with their impulses through activities that foster their chase, prey drive, and foraging impulses among others.
Signs your dog needs to work on impulse control
Here are a few common behaviors that mean your dog may need a little help with their impulses:
- Bolting through doorways to get outside
- Rushing in and out of car doors
- Pulling on leash
- Chasing cats, squirrels, birds, and other animals
- Rushing to greet people and animals
- Jumping to greet
- A general inability to calm down
- Trying to take food out of your hand or eating before being told to
- Putting everything in their mouth
You don’t have to wait for your dog to show any of these behaviors; you can train proactively to help with impulse control. Teaching your dog impulse control keeps dogs safe. Use impulse control games to teach your dog to wait for permission before doing what the dog wants. You can teach your dog patience with practice, and developing patience sets them up for long-term success.
10 IMPULSE CONTROL GAMES FOR YOUR DOG
As with all training, working on impulse control should be fun for you and your dog. There are plenty of training games to help your dog channel their impulses using positive reinforcements.
Like any other type of training, you’ll want to prepare yourself with the right tools before you get started. These tools include:
- High-value training treats (freeze-dried chicken, cut-up hot dogs/cheese, peanut butter in a squeeze tube)
- A flirt pole
- Your dog’s favorite toy
- Leads, both short and long
*Some games or activities work best with a helper.
1. SMART x 50
The “SMART” part stands for:
The 50 refers to the fact that you will reward your pup 50 times a day!
- First, start off each morning by counting out 50 pieces of kibble or treats and placing the pile in an area that’s easy for you to access (like the kitchen counter or your living room mantle).
- If you see your dog doing something you like, mark it by saying “yes” (or clicking) and rewarding him with a treat from the pile. Repeat 50 times each day while treating from the pile. It’s that simple! You can also reward your dog with a jackpot (multiple treats at once) if they do something you really love, or that is challenging for them.
The best part of this game is that your dog will start offering good manners and desired behaviors without your cues or direction. This will help him make good decisions on his own. This game is simple, easy to execute, and incredibly powerful, but it does require a lot of observation and consistency from you.
2. SEE SAW
This game teaches your dog not to lunge for food or steal off-limits food. The goal of this game is to be able to gradually lower a plate of human food (be sure to use dog-safe food – just in case!) all the way to the ground without your dog lunging towards it.
Sounds challenging, but if you work to make slow and steady progress, you’ll even be able to get your dog to maintain eye contact with you the whole time and completely ignore the plate!
- Human food (dog safe in case they snatch it)
- Extra special rewards
- Kneel or stand above your dog with your food on a plate
- Start to lower the plate
- As you lower the plate, raise it immediately when your dog goes for it
- Repeat this until you can successfully lower the plate all the way to the floor
- Once that happens, mark and reward
This same game can be applied to their own food bowl and getting them to wait before diving in.
3. DOORBELL PLACE
This game is to gradually get your dog to stop barking when the doorbell rings and to sit patiently in a designated place until released.
You’ll start by marking and rewarding (click and treat) your dog when they stop barking, and eventually work to have them in their place and sitting or lying down before the door opens, without you even having to tell them.
- A helper to knock on the door
- High-value treats
- Stand near the door and have someone knock or ring the doorbell
- Wait until your dog stops barking
- The instant they stop, click and treat
- Depending on your dog, you may need to work on this frequently for a few days. The more you do it, the quicker they will stop barking
- Then introduce their place or bed. Tell them to “settle” and point to their bed.
4. RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT
This activity is ideal for dogs who pull on leashes. Red light green light is a game that teaches your dog to move forward on the leash when you tell them to, not when they feel like it or see something worth chasing. Their reward is getting to walk with you, and they will be more focused when out.
- High-value training treats
- Long line lead
- Start inside with your dog on a leash
- While holding the leash, start walking forward
- As long as the leash is loose, keep walking
- When the leash gets tight, stop walking immediately
- Wait until your dog comes to you or stops pulling, then click and treat *Remember to distribute treats right by your knee so they get used to sticking by your side
- Start walking again
5. DARTING SQUIRREL
This game is helpful if you have issues with your dog chasing objects or animals.
Play this game in your backyard or on a long lead for control, and get your dog engaged with their flirt pole. This game’s goal is to move the flirt pole out of your dog’s reach, give them a cue (leave it), and have them completely stop chasing the flirt pole. That way, if you are out and about and a squirrel runs by, tell them to “leave it!”
- Start by getting your dog used to playing with a flirt pole by making it as exciting as possible
- Slowly move the flirt pole around. You’ll want your dog to be engaged and go after it
- Then stop moving it and move it out of your dog’s reach
- Wait for them to stop chasing/jumping
- The instant they show restraint, click and treat
6. UNLEASHING CALMNESS
If your dog gets excited and jumps or pulls toward the door whenever the leash comes out, put the leash on as normal and then go sit on the couch. Don’t engage with your dog or scold the bad behavior. Wait for your dog to settle down.
Once your dog has calmed down or maybe gone into a sit or down position, tell him “yes,” or click and treat, get up and head for the door. Your dog will likely become over-excited again, so be ready to reset multiple times before he gets the hint and calmly follows you to the door.
Practice this when you have enough time to devote to setting these good habits, maybe on the weekend versus the early morning walk before work.
7. FINDERS KEEPERS
This is a great game that teaches your dog how to find a specific toy. It is especially perfect for dogs to learn simple commands.
- Start out with just one toy and tell the dog to go find it. Choose a phrase to represent the toy and stick to it at all times. You must be consistent.
- When they find the toy, reward them, and take the toy away from them like you are playing. Throw the toy, then say the phrase you used for the toy in an excited tone, and have the dog find it again.
- After some time, stop pointing at the toy (this is a visual cue) and just give a verbal cue for the dog to go fetch it. Keep rewarding the dog when they find the toy and keep grabbing it from them.
- Introduce a new toy in the game. You may want to introduce a toy that is not as exciting as the previous one and repeat the process above. Only reward them if they give you the second correct toy.
- Again, name this second toy, as it will be easier for the dog to identify the toys by name.
- Keep repeating this game until the dog can alternate between the toys that you ask for.
- Gradually keep increasing the number of toys until the dog knows them all by name and can fetch any that you wish them to retrieve for you.
This game is great when you want to exhaust your high-energy dog. It takes lots of work to find treats you have hidden with his nose, but dogs find sniffing calming. (Just like licking or chewing) Hunting for food using their noses is a natural thing for them, and it’s a great way to work several of their impulses.
- Use boxes that have treats in them to teach the dog how to look out for treats by sniffing for them using their nose.
- You can gradually increase the complexity of the treats in the boxes by putting them in different ways. If you have a cardboard box, loosely close the flaps.
- Start off by hiding these treats outside of the box and then inside the box.
- Try out other new locations and challenge your dog.
9. TUG AND SETTLE
This game is a perfect activity for high-energy dogs.
To get started:
- Play tug with your dog. After a few seconds, tell your pup to drop the toy. “Drop it”
- As soon as they do, click and treat, and start again.
- Repeat until your dog understands that dropping the toy keeps the game going.
- Next, add in the sit or down cue. Initiate a tug again and ask your dog to drop it. Then, tell your dog to sit or lie down. As the dog sits or its elbows hit the ground for down, click and treat, and begin playing again.
- For the next round, start by asking them to drop the toy, then wait for your dog to sit or lie down without being asked. When the dog finally lies down, immediately release them with “okay!” and initiate another round.
- Increase the time your dog stays down or seated. This is called adding duration. When your dog’s down or sitting after dropping the toy, wait progressively longer before you release them. Start with two or three seconds.
10. EYES ON ME
This is a great game that teaches your dog to remain calm when they see exciting or scary things on a walk. It is a good game for dogs that are leash-reactive and hyper-aggressive dogs.
- Take your dog on a walk with some treats.
- When you notice them lose focus due to a specific object, such as another dog, a cat, a person, or a squirrel, click to them and wait for them to look at you
- When they look at you, give them a treat.
- If they do not turn towards you and are fixated on the distracting object, do not give any treats.
- Move away from the distracting objects and try again.
Pick the game that works best for you and your dog. Don’t forget to reward desirable and calm behavior whenever you see it. I know we don’t always have treats in our pockets, so we can still reward for calm behavior with praise, affection, and or petting.