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:
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.
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:
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!