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Leave-Its, Impulse Control and Dog Brains

I almost always include what I consider to be the solid foundational cues in my behavioral work, also known as, the doggy ABC's.  On that long list of communications is undoubtedly one of my favorite commands, "leave-it."  Leave-it is about impulse control. It is about a dog being able to hone in instincts and make a conditioned choice.  It is in my opinion one of the best learned behaviors we can teach our dogs because dogs come with a lot of genetic, environmental, temperament derived and  learning histories of instinct driven behaviors.  After all our beloved dogs are still animals. Impulses or instincts in the animal world serve function and purpose and so does behavior and that is why it is natural for our furry family members to come into our human world with perceptions, feelings, responses and behaviors that are impulsive in nature: but why does it cause such a problem?

Lack of impulse control typically cause issues for pet owners and multi-dog households because impulses are sudden, strong unreflective urges to act.  So if you are walking your dog and suddenly they pull you so hard that you almost fall, actually fall down or loose the grip on the leash because a squirrel ran across the road, then we can see why there would be an issue.  Most people have concern for their safety and their dogs safety when they have experienced not being able to get control of their dog.  Some behavioral examples of a lack of impulse control would be:

  • Leash pulling in response to an environmental trigger
  • Door darting
  • Inability to wait for a prolonged time (trouble with stays)
  • Trouble understanding delayed gratification (inability to wait for dog food)
  • Over-excited energy levels at the sight of other people or other animals (even if playful and friendly)
  • Mentally not being able to "let go" of a trigger
  • Being able to decrease over arousal (play turns to fights easily)
  • Not being able to call off your dog if he goes after a dropped piece of food or toy
  • Counter-suffering
  • Jumping on people
  • Scavenges everything
  • Takes treats from your hand harshly
  • Fence fighting
  • Not being able to let go or drop a desired item

I think it is important to note that people often expect much of their dogs and less of themselves. We are humans in a human world and we too struggle with self-control.  Psychology of humans show gambling, obesity, alcohol abuse, impulsive spending,  sexual promiscuity, criminal behavior and many more mechanisms of human behavior as rooted in lack of impulse control.  But your dog is an animal in a human-centric world.   So I hope we could see how asking our dogs to automatically have almost perfect control of their self in all environments and settings would be a very unrealistic expectation, particularly without spending the necessary time and energy into teaching the skill of instinct regularity.  This comes down to patience and empathy.  If we live in a world where we know and comprehend the behavioral parameters and speak the same language of those around us we should at the very least be incredibly sensitive and aware that impulse control is a behavior our dogs are capable of, if shaped and coached in the kindest and most ethical way. Hello science based positive reinforcement!

Now that we have discussed instincts that are innate and in response to certain stimuli in depth lets talk about ways to give our dogs a broader skill set to practice impulse control.

  • Leave-It (Level One)- Take a handful of small treats and make a fist.  Present your fist to your dogs nose. It is natural for your dog to explore your fist. Their nose leads them to sniff, mouth, lick, paw, jump up, etc.  They are giving you dog behaviors in a response to something you have that they cannot figure out how to get access to.  The second they stop moving to your hand with any part of their body say, "Yes!" and treat!  Then repeat.  Do this repetitively and consistently.  Once your dog defaults to not advancing on your fist then you can give the verbal cue, "Leave-it, yes!" and treat.
  • Leave-It (Level Two)- Repeat all of the above in Leave-it level one, expcept this time your hand is open and the treats are laying flat on your palm.  This step is built to be more advanced than level one in that the treats are more accessible, visual and the scent is stronger because there is no barrier.  When your dog shows interest in your open hand we lift it up and to the side of us or behind us and when the dog is calm and not trying to actively get the treats we re-approach with our open hand.  Just as before we will say, "Yes!" and treat when the dog shows us he can hone in those instincts and not go after our open palm. Once repeated consistently we will add in, "Leave-it, yes!" and treat.
  • Leave-It (Level Three)- Grab a leash! Grab two levels of reinforcers (bagged treats and cut up hot dog).  In this level of leave-its we will leash our dog and toss a handful of bagged treats on the ground.  Typically all dogs then extend as far as they can the length of the leash and try to inhale those yummies on the ground. So in preperation for that impulsive behavior keep the leash short and walk away from the treats you tossed on the ground and present a piece of hot dog to your dogs nose as incentive to check in with you and away from the floor.  Mark "Yes!" for disengaging from the treats on the ground and engaging with you.  Then get closer to the treats on the ground (still keeping the leash short), redirect the dog with the hot dog to focus on you, mark "Yes!" for eye contact, sits and body placement to you.  The idea is to teach the dog that nothing good happens when the leash is tight and pulling away from dog mom or dad towards something that interests them or that they want.  Instead, a very insatiable reinforcer awaits them every time they center themselves to you.  Once this behavior is shaped consistently and you are able to get very close to the hot dog add, "Leave-it, yes" and treat.  When all three of these levels are done correctly we can start to see that a verbal cue of "leave it" becomes predictive of offered attention from our dog onto you!  As you progress with this technique the leash should not have to be tight to get a leave it and we should be able to eventually walk past and even through the treat trail left on the floor. Yes it is possible and I highly recommend you do the work!
  • Leave-It (Level Four)-  Once you and your dog have mastered the above three levels of impulse control then we can start to put our dog in a sit and/or down and place treats on the floor with our hand over them.  Same principles as before apply.  When your dog moves to the treats they get nada and depending on your dogs level of enthusiasm you may have to lure back into a sit or down and reward them for sitting and downing in the presence of something they want (treats on the floor).  This level is meant to teach dogs that even when something is not in their pet parents possession and they are not being restrained by a leash they still need to be able to have a conditioned emotional response to move away from what they are drawn towards.  A dog should be able to sit or down and you uncover your hand. If they go to the treats on the ground cover with your foot or hand.  Reinforce the withdraw from the treats.  When the dog exhibits instinctual control make sure you mark with "Yes!" and treat and then work up to "Leave-it, yes!" and treat when the dog understands the concept of the game. They literally get paid for not going to the treats on the ground and just laying there.  As you and your dog find your rhythm with this skill we increase the behavioral criteria and add looks (so your dog is not only physically leaving it he is also mentally leaving it and giving you his eye contact) and even treats on your dog's paw or on the table. Be creative!
  • Counter-Surfing- teach your dog mat work or "place."  Have a rug you can take anywhere and a jar of treats and every single time you go to the kitchen cue and lure your dog to their mat and say, "Place-yes!" and treat.  Be consistent.  Every time they try to get up reset them back to place.  Decide your release word and you release your dog from their spot sooner rather than later in the beginning.  You can always add in duration and distractions later, but for now meet your dog at the level of learning he or she it at.  Their mat should also be where they get rawhide free bones, Kongs, snuffle mats and their breakfast and dinner.  We are saying, place is the best place to be!
  • Communicate With Release Words-  One of the best ways to teach self-control in dogs is to train with a release word. Sit, down, place, stay, wait, and return are all verbal cues that should have a release word.  Meaning your dog does not just sit when you say sit and then get up, rather, you put your dog in a sit, give a free flowing stream of cookies while saying, "sit-yes" then in 3 seconds toss the last treat to the floor and say "free."  This shows your dog they will be reinforced for sitting and tell them that free means to get up from the command.  Overtime we introduce a variable-ratio of reinforcement meaning the treats are spaced out so the dog will sit longer with less treats and use a hand gesture and our body to cue the release word.
  • Wait-  One way we can all implement better impulse discretion is to have our dog learn to wait. Wait at door ways, wait to get in to the car and out of the car, wait to eat, wait to go run and get the toy just thrown, etc.  Wait can be taught by using a leash for physical follow through, putting your dog in a sit and every time the opportunity presents itself, cue the sit then cue the wait with your hand (you can also use body posturing to help your dog understand) and do not move forward until the dog has waited for whatever follows.  Again, start small in the length we ask our dogs to wait and increase in duration overtime.

The above list is in no way meant to be completely comprehensive. I could embarrassingly go on and on!  Feel free to reach out to us if you need help in this department.  Lastly, I wanted to make sure we understand that impulse control, instincts, the development of skills to improve mental function of restraint and the lack there of are rooted in behavioral analysis and brain anatomy.  We should all know by now that behavior is functionally related to an animals environment but within that relationship there are also neural, hormonal and mental maps at work.  Simply Behavior, outlines the following dog brain regions and how they come into consideration when we are living with our dogs:

  • Prefrontal Cortex, Orbital Prefrontal Cortex and the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex- Inhibit limbic regions responsible for aggression.
  • The Anterior Cingulate Cortex is thought to be involved in evaluating stimuli and its utility relating to response of the individual.
  • Amygdala responds to threatening or charged stimuli.
  • Brain regions work together in a network and signal to other nodes in the system such as hypothalamus.
  • Hypothalamus is involved in initiating motor action and modulating hormonal systems.
  • Impulse control aggression is characterized by an unstable affect modulation and then triggers a cascade of responses.

The big picture is pretty spectacular.  We can shape, lure and condition our dogs behavior in ways that are humane and reward based and in doing so have a positive effect on their canine cognition.  By helping our dogs regularly practice instinctual willpower positively we can overtime keep parts of their brain from being chronically over stimulated.  Overworked brain networks can result in stress responses and habitual triggered mind states. How amazing to know that with a little investment in our dogs and mindful techniques geared toward leave it skills we can promote healthier brains and healthier behaviors.   It is why I always say we work brain and behavior, mind and body connections!

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