Self-control and impulse control in dogs

As Reggie gets a little older and every day more comfortable around other dogs, I pay attention to his body language and his vocal signals to try and learn his communication style and how well he is communicating with other dogs. Reggie is not a barker; he doesn’t bark, he doesn’t growl, he very rarely vocalizes anything. When he does, it is at the mailman (cliched I know), or a resource guarding situation over a tennis ball. So when I hear him growl I am at full alert, knowing that something unusual is occurring and I need to check it out and possibly intervene.

Reggie had a cone-wearing episode a few weeks ago which caused me to explore the idea of dogs having bad days. Recently I read a blog from the wonderful animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell regarding the depletion of self-control. Her blog references a study on this subject. The concept is simple: if a dog spends too much energy doing task X, its self control stores will be depleted and no longer able to make good decisions and possibly put itself into aggressive or dangerous situations. It’s no different for us right? After a long day at work you come home and you are emotionally spent. Maybe you argue with your spouse or kids over something dumb. The same can happen to your dog. The example in Ms. McConnell’s blog is to think about having your well behaved angel at a picnic all day not eating the hot dogs. By the end of the day, he might just say screw you and grab a hot dog off of someone’s plate (ok I colored it a little).

I have noticed lately Reggie seems to be lacking in impulse control, and he was certainly lacking in self control (having a bad day- or two) while wearing the cone. The research suggests that a depletion of stores of self control can lead to making bad choices, yet when Reggie is well exercised he seems to make better choices when it comes to dog-dog interactions. His impulse control is well, better controlled. There is also a correlation to a dog being on leash and self control; that is, being on leash and owner attentive requires self control as opposed to being off leash and (to a certain extent) roaming about. Reggie’s dad often comments that he feels he has better control and attention with Reggie when they walk off leash. Perhaps that is because Reggie’s self control is not depleted by being on leash; he has to focus on less things with less restriction.

Now a word about impulse control. Impulse control, or lack thereof, is essentially what it sounds like. I have noticed that while walking Reggie sees another dog and instantly gets super pumped and tries to lunge at the other dog. Not out of aggression, but excitement. He wants to meet everybody. However I will not let my dog be a rude dog and restrain him until I can ask the other owner if they can meet. Sometimes it’s ok, sometimes it’s not. His behavior scares some people off, makes some dogs reactive, some dogs calm him down, and sometimes he is the reactive one. What behavior do I want? What I’ve always made him do is step off the sidewalk onto the grass and sit to let walkers or bikers pass. He does this perfectly well. I also do this with walkers and dogs, and as stated what he has started doing is lunging at the dog passing by instead of sitting calmly. I want him to stay sitting with the dog passing by as I ask the owner if they can meet until I give him the release signal and then he can greet. Read this blog entry by acclaimed trainer Dr. Sophia Yin regarding impulse control.

So we keep working. I take treats with me on every walk, always looking for opportunities to reward good behavior. Timing is critical when administering rewards- keep that in mind. I pay attention to his self control levels and keep in mind whether or not he might be having a bad day. I know I’ve said it before, but it doesn’t make it less true- we are advocates for our dogs and it is our responsibility to teach them, “raise” them, and make them safe.

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4 thoughts on “Self-control and impulse control in dogs

  1. My dog reacts to other dogs the same way as Reggie, he lunges out of excitement. It seems to be about the initial greeting, once they sniff, I can easily say Zeke, lets go, and he will continue walking on without a struggle. I have also noticed that when I walk him on an extendable leash he is less reactive (up to a certain proximity of another dog) than on his 6 foot leash. It seems as though when he has more of a choice on where he can go he doesn’t become so fixated. Great post! It’s nice to know I’m not alone with my over-exuberant greeter.

    • That’s a great point! I hadn’t thought of that…once the initial sniff-greeting is over, Reggie is much calmer- it’s “out of his system”. And we’re on our way. Great observation!

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