Setting Your Dog Up for Success with Self-Control
Self-control, whether in your grey-muzzled best friend or in a puppy you just brought home, is an important skill that needs to be learned. As puppies, many new parents like to joke that their new friend has no chill, diving headfirst into the food bowl, being the first out the gate at puppy school, and plunging enthusiastically into the play-pile. This rambunctious behavior is cute when convenient, but as your lives mesh together and daily routine becomes set, these same new owners may find themselves regretting their laughing at their pets’ lack of self-control.
Few of us remember this stage of our life, but self-control is instilled early by setting expectations and learning that patience more often likely to end in you getting what you want. Our dogs also go through this learning process naturally when in a group environment. When in a group of dogs, puppies will be reprimanded when being too forceful by their older companions, when not waiting for other senior companions to eat first, and for acting out of turn, or just being too in-your-face. Our modern-day furry friends, especially when part of a single-dog home, must be taught self-control and self-management of behaviors through training and daily reinforcement – teaching them gently and in a productive way will help to grow your relationship with your pup.
When left to their own devices and when self-control is not prioritized early in your interactions with each other, the grown-up dog can be a danger to themselves or others. Often, they approach other humans and pets without checking their reactions or body language, when they see something they like (whether it’s a child’s treat or a sandwich on the counter) they will do whatever is necessary in order to have that. Sometimes, this can result in harm to others, or at least your belongings. When out in the world with you, they might dash in front of cars to catch a cat across the road or will pull you in any direction possible when on a lead. Self-control teaches your pet that waiting for a cue from you or signaling that they would like something from you with a default stance, is more likely to get what they want than lunging for it whole-heartedly.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to start the path to a completely self-mastered pet, no matter whether you are just starting your relationship with a puppy, an older dog, or have been old friends and have just let some impatient behavior be the norm. While these are good steps to include in your daily routine, there should be frequent breaks with multiple sessions a day whenever these fit in naturally. The more frequently you practice these techniques, the more quickly your dog will start showing these behaviors on their own. Always remember, though, that training that is fun is more likely to be picked up by your dog, so try to keep it short and sweet and focused on a reward they enjoy:
Ways to encourage your dogs self-control:
Training a default behavior: A default behavior is a trained position that your dog learns to fall into whenever they are waiting for a response from you or need something. This is usually either a sit or laying down position, though you should keep in mind your pets’ comfort level when setting this position. To train a default position, start out in a quiet and neutral place and train your pet to keep their attention on you and reward them with a treat when they maintain that position. You should at first take this up as an active training session, but then start rewarding them when they do this without signaling (no calling their name or any other attention-getting on your part). Start out by setting a very short time before rewarding, then slowly lengthen when their attention stays on you longer.
Once they have this down in your home, start training in other environments to get them used to this. Default behavior is successfully trained when your dog learns to do this when they are waiting on you for something, want your attention, such as at feeding hour or when waiting for you to start walking on the leash. This will teach self-control by not engaging in loud or destructive behavior to get your attention, such as barking, jumping, or bumping into you.
Crate Training: A crate is a great place to learn many behaviors, including learning to occupy themselves when not being interacted with. While crate time should be a good space for them to play with their own toys, sleep, or relax without you around, you can also use leaving the crate to build self-control in your pet.
When you come into a room where your pet is crated, whether you have been out all day or were just making dinner in the other room, leave your pet to get used to you being around and to calm down before approaching the crate. When you get ready to open the door, signal your pet to sit by the door. Work on them maintaining their sit stance (default behavior) by not completely opening the crate door if your pet breaks their default behavior. If they get up at any point between opening the door and signaling they can leave the crate, stand back and start again. This can certainly take a few tries before you can get the door open, but it is great self-control training behavior.
Handy Treats: Not all dogs are shy eaters, especially when a tasty treat is in your hand. If you know the sting of a dog who wants that treat in your fingers right now, then this is great training practice for you. Start by putting a treat in your closed fist, then introduce your dog to it. They will be able to smell the treat in your hand and will bump and try to get your fist open for the treat. Only when they leave your hand alone and (hopefully) resort to default behavior should you open your fist. When you’ve successfully trained this self-control for treats in the hand, your dog should leave your open palm alone, with food in it, until you give the release word.
Food Time: This is extremely similar to the previous trick, but with their meal-time. Whether this is three or two times a day, always wait until your dog is calm and in default behavior before lowering the food bowl. Once they are able to sit until the food bowl is lowered to the floor, cover the food bowl with your hands. They may try to get around your hands to the bowl, which is when you’d life the bowl up again to start again. Slowly, your dog will learn that they only get the food when they are sitting in the default position.
While all these practices may seem simple, practicing every day will train your pup to fall back to their default behavior until they know that, when they want something, resorting to that is more likely to get what they want. If used consistently during walking, feeding, and crate training, your dog will expand using the default stance to every other part of their life and will fall back on that behavior when they want or need something. When used as part of training that includes plenty of social play with other dogs, they will learn patience and self-control in all other parts of their behavior and be more adaptive and calm when other issues come up.
By Lauren Pescarus