When the Wild Child Rears its Ugly Head

Self-control or Impulse control is my ‘thing’, I spend a lot of time teaching people games to play with their dog to improve their dog’s self control and because I end up with the problem dogs, I’ve usually got several dogs that are ‘work in progress’ with regards to self-control and other issues. With the established pack, I usually have a pretty good idea when they are going to get a bit OTT and have issues with their impulse control, but just sometimes, they catch me out.

Take Mr T, always a bit wild on the beach and gets very ‘shouty’, so we do some work there before they are all allowed to hooli about. He can get a bit OTT at flyball (as expected really as it is a high adrenaline sport) and recently, he has become a bit reluctant to release his tuggy, so back to working on that and getting a bit more self-control. However, at a recent gundog training workshop, the wild child really was released. We got to do some retrieves using a dummy launcher; and that was the most exciting thing ever; he couldn’t sit, couldn’t stay quiet, all he wanted was that retrieve. It was all so much more exciting than flyball which did surprise me a bit.

So why did it all go wrong? The quacking noise that the dummy launcher made and the excitement generated by the gunshot and the dummies flying high in the sky was all a bit much for his current stage of training. I should have taken him further away and reinforced calmness and then gradually brought him closer and closer, rewarding calmness before letting him have that explosive retrieve. But I didn’t, he got several retrieves.

I did learn that despite his excitement levels, he could mark the dummy and do a cracking retrieve to hand without mouthing or trying to play tug with the dummy (something that we had struggled with previously, as he would either drop the dummy short or try to play tug with it), he could also memorise where a dummy had fallen and go out and retrieve it cleanly even if the previous dog had missed it. So despite his high arousal levels, he was still capable of having a soft mouth and of thinking and remembering work that we had previously done in a calmer environment. As soon as we had finished playing with the dummy launcher, he did calm down very quickly.

So, although we had a bit of  a blip, and I have more work to do, I’m confident that the games we are playing  at various arousal levels is starting to be generalised to other situations. I will admit that Mr T has taken a back seat since Mint arrived and this episode has reminded me that I do need to keep playing that games with him to maintain and develop his impulse control.

Self-control/impulse control can be taught to a dog. Some breeds are genetically wired to be  impulsive (spaniels spring to mind as well as working line Malinois and terriers) and other breeds are genetically wired to be less impulsive (many retrievers, many hound breeds, some of the large heavy breeds). The impulsive breeds can be taught to control their impulses and this is best taught allowing the dog freedom of choice rather than trying to impose it. So a dog choosing to sit before it is allowed to carry out an action is always going to learn to control its impulses better than one that is told to wait or stay before being allowed to carry out that desired behavior. Both methods will bring about results, but the dog that is allowed to make choices will learn much better and generalise better than the one that has self-control imposed on it by the handler. And yes, you can train impulsive dogs to settle calmly at home whilst you are working; they don’ need to be bouncing off the walls all the time.

We also need to teach behaviors when the dog is in various states or arousal as behaviours taught when the dog is calm will be forgotten when the dog is aroused (much as happens with us).

To learn more about self-control/impulse-control check out our EPIC courses and also our on-line self-control course, both of which are full of exercises to teach your dogs self-control/impulse control.

Back to training the ‘wild child’ that is Mr T 🙂