Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Impulse control games are important exercises that can help your dog learn how to better control his impulses and master better frustration tolerance. To sum it up, they are the building blocks for a well-trained dog.
Let's face it: Dogs aren't very good at exerting impulse control. They are often very excitable and struggle to cope with our modern-day life and our high expectations. Many dog owners wish to have a dog who is calm, patient and obedient rather than a dog who is reacting, or overreacting to certain situations.
If your dog is jumping on people, stealing food at the table, chasing the cat, pulling on the leash and bolting out of the door, you are likely essentially thinking your dog has bad manners. Ask a dog trainer though and he or she will likely sum it up as your dog simply lacking impulse control.
Not Just a "Doggy Thing"
We can't blame dogs for not being able to control their impulses. After all, humans as well can suffer from a host of impulse-related disorders, from binge eating to binge buying. It just seems like we often can’t help ourselves.
Dogs though don’t suffer from the same sorts of issues thankfully (despite that picture of dogs playing poker), but you might notice your pup jumping on people or eating food that falls on the ground or pulling on the leash. Thankfully, curbing these behaviors in dogs is a lot less difficult than with humans.
A Matter of Maturity
Like children, puppies and younger dogs aren’t mentally developed enough yet to readily control their impulses on their own and it’s might be too early to try and teach them sophisticated self-control. That’s why if you see dogs entering service dog training or police dog training, they are at least a year old.
At that point, their pre-frontal cortex has developed enough for them to grasp the concepts you need them to do in order to become effectively trained. This applies to regular pups, too.
This doesn't mean though that you can't start early to train some basics to some young pups. It just means that young pups may struggle with certain more advanced or complex exercises such as holding longer stays or doing several steps of attention heeling in a distracting environment and this is to a good extent because they have shorter attention spans.
Training Impulse Control to Dogs
Dogs don't come with factory-installed impulse control. Left to their own devices, when they have a thought in their mind, they just go for it. It is therefore up to us dog owners teaching them how to control their impulses.
So how do we train dogs this important skill? First of all, we need our dogs to receive a good level of basic training. We, therefore, need our dogs to know how to sit, lie down, heel and stay. A dog who knows how to sit or lie down, after all, cannot be dispensing paw prints all over your neighbor's suit or stealing that slice of cheese from your friend's plate the moment he turns around.
The goal of this article is to, therefore, provide your dog with a solid foundation of impulse control exercises for both indoor life and life in the great outdoors.
Impulse control is learnt gradually and not completely mastered until a dog becomes an adult, because in young dogs, the neuro-biological structures are not yet mature, although they are present. Exercises in impulse control training are actually enormously important for all dogs.
— Sabina Pilguj, author of Dog Relax: Relaxed Dogs, Relaxed Owners
10 Impulse Control Games for Dogs
As tempting as it may be to provide a deadline for teaching dogs impulse control, the truth is that each dog is an individual and learns at his own pace.
On top of this, we must consider that training dogs should be a fun, self-paced activity, which means that you should not feel pressured to attain results within a certain time frame. So stop competing with the Joneses.
If you make training your dog a fun, rewarding activity and remove deadlines or specific expectations for the outcomes of your training, you will feel more relaxed and your dog will relax too. This leads to a happier, more fulfilling, dog and owner relationship based on a foundation of trust and mutual respect.
So here are 10 impulse control games for dogs that once mastered, will have your neighbors green with envy and secretly thinking to themselves "Oh, how I wished my dog could do that!"
1) Unleashing Calmness
If you have an over-active pup at walk time, these exercises are for you. If your dog gets excited and jumpy when the leash comes out and starts to pull toward the door, put the leash on as normal and then go sit on the couch. Don’t engage with your dog or scold the bad behavior. Wait for your dog to settle down.
Once your dog has calmed down or maybe gone into a sit or a lie-down position, tell him “yes,” get up and head for the door. Your dog will be likely to spaz out again, so be ready to repeat your trip to the couch multiple times before he gets the hint and calmly follows you to the door.
Now, I know this may cut into your walk time, especially if you’re on the schedule, so you might want to start this practice over the weekend or when you have enough time to devote to setting these good habits.
2) Open Sesame
Once you’ve gotten your pup to calmly approach the door for walk time, your next hurdle is not having him bolt out of the door the minute it’s open. It’s going to take some repetition again, but you want to have your dog hold a nice sit when you open the door.
Start to open the door only when your dog is seated. If they scooch or stand up, the door closes. You want to teach them that you only open the door for walks when your dog is sitting nicely. Reward your dog with a “yes" followed by a tasty treat once your dog has stayed put and then exit the door together proceeding for a nice walk.
With time, your dog should learn to sit when you touch the doorknob and stay seated until you open the door and invite him to join you on a walk.
3) Chill Walks
Now that you’re in the groove of teaching your dog new behaviors, it’s time to teach him a new way to walk. Reward your dog when the leash is slack, and your dog is sticking calmly at your side instead of dragging you down the road and trying to sniff every bush he comes across. Remember to praise your dog and deliver a treat when your dog has done a good job and he has mastered this type of walk.
Remember the golden rule: "A slack leash is your accelerator, a tight leash is your brake." So when your dog is sticking by your side, praise and reward with a tasty treat and forward movement, and when he pulls, slow down and even come to a stop if he keeps pulling, totally ignoring your dog.
Your first walks will feel like they take a lifetime the first days, but if you are consistent, your dog should soon learn that a loose leash unlocks treats and keeps your moving, when a tight leash leads to you stopping and no attention nor treats.
And remember, treats aren't the only reward you can provide your dog on walks! Forward movement is a reward too, so if you know your dog is dying to go sniff a bush, (because to dogs, that’s often the best part of the walk) provide that as a life reward for walking nicely on the leash.
As tempting as it can be tough to reward your dog by letting him go greet other dogs or people, consider that they may not be as friendly as your fur baby.
4) Waiting for Food Delivery
You’re on a roll with teaching your pup how to behave like a high-class pup. It’s time to extend that to mealtimes. Like you did with the open door for walks, you’re going to want to get your dog in a sit before you give them the food. You might even try getting the food ready in advance if your dog is out in the yard taking care of business or another family member is walking him.
The same principle applies here. If your pup gets out of the sit, the bowl comes back up and out of reach. It may be harder for them to get the gist of this exercise at first (especially if their tummy is rumbling!) but keep at it and eventually, your pup will sit still long enough for you to give them the food and let them enjoy a nice meal.
5) Sit for Greeting
In order to implement this, you need to be very consistent. In other words, every time your dog meets and greets someone, he has to sit in order to be petted. This game therefore works on the principle that it's physically impossible for dogs to jump and sit at the same time. Sitting is therefore a behavior that is incompatible with jumping.
Practice this game with friends and family. Sit in a large circle and take turns calling your dog and asking him to sit for being petted and give him a treat too to thank him for his collaboration.
Expand this behavior by having your dog sit when guests arrive at the door and reinforce the sit with praise, pats and a tasty treat. For ease of use, make it a habit to hold some tasty treats handy by the door.
Don't forget to practice this outdoors and well, by asking your dog to sit when you meet somebody on walks.
6) Sit for Car Rides
Raise your hand if your dog goes bonkers the moment he acknowledges that he's about to go on a car ride? If so, you may want to use his enthusiasm to your advantage to reinforce a calm behavior using the Premack Principle.
In this case, make it a habit of opening the car door only once your dog sits. The concept is similar to the open sesame game described above for when exiting the home.
As your dog gets good at this, start adding some distractions and duration. In other words, try to get your dog to sit/stay despite the car door being open and have him wait for your cue to let him know when he can jump in. I like to say "get in!" or "hop up" to invite the dog to get in the car.
Please note: this exercise works well for dogs who are enthusiastic about car rides. If your dog is anxious about car rides or your dog is scared to jump into your truck, you will need to work on reducing his fear first.
7) Ignoring Table Scraps
Does your dog try to eat people food-stealing them from the table? Does your dog grab anything that falls off the counter? You can train him to “leave it” by providing him higher value treats as a reward for leaving the stuff you don't want them to have.
It’s going to take time and you may end up stepping on food on purpose to keep them from getting it, but given time, your dog will learn that they get something better when they ignore what’s been left behind or dropped.
You can even practice doing it from a distance once you no longer have to block your pup’s access to the item you want them to leave.
To train your dog to ignore table scraps, start with this simple exercise. Hold a piece of bread in the palm of your hand and a high-value treat in your pocket. Next, present your open hand with the bread to your dog. The moment he tries to get the bread, say, "leave it" and close your hand covering the piece of bread. As soon as your dog takes his nose away from your hand, say “Yes!” and feed the treat from your pocket. Repeat this several times.
Progress to where you can tell your dog to leave it even if you start gradually exposing the bread in plain view with your open hand. Most dogs eventually learn to take their mouth away from the presented food so to get something better a little later.
Extend the difficulty of the exercise by practicing with the food placed on certain surfaces and on the floor, always making sure that what you offer is higher in value than the item left. This way your dog learns to reap the benefits of delayed gratification. Here's a more throughout guide on training a dog to leave it and drop it.
8) Structured Games
Playtime is great but it can be a little chaotic if your dog has lots of energy. If your dog loves to play fetch, you can get him to sit calmly when you throw the ball rather than having him jumping, barking or spinning in circles.
It will probably take some time for your dog to learn that he or she only gets the ball or frisbee tossed (or whatever their favorite fetch item may be) if they are sitting and not barking.
Want to take it up a level? Make your dog sit and stay even after you’ve thrown the ball and only let them go when you give the word "go get it!" While it’s not really necessary to train your dog to do this, this will certainly impress your family and friends.
9) Capturing Calmness
This exercise teaches your dog to relax and control his impulse to engage in other behaviors. To help your dog succeed, do this after your dog's needs for exercise and mental stimulation are met.
Simply sit down on the couch and keep your dog on a leash holding it firmly under your foot. Allow enough slack so that your dog can sit, stand up and lie down. Watch your favorite TV show or read a book or magazine.
Ignore your dog no matter what he does. This means ignore if he barks at you, chews on the leash, pulls or paws at you. Eventually, your dog will lie down, and he may emit a sigh. Praise him when he does and feed a treat as you pet him calmly. Then say, “Done!” remove the leash and set him free.
Repeat this exercise every evening for a week. Eventually, your dog should start to settle down immediately in anticipation of your petting, praise and treat. At some point, right when he is about to lie down say, “Chill” just before he lies down. Soon, your dog should be able to lie down and chill on cue.
10) Bark-Free Windows
Does your dog go bonkers when he sees other dogs or people walk by the window? If so, your dog may benefit from this simple impulse control exercise.
Make a smacking, kissy sound with your mouth. Next, place a treat at your eye level and give your dog the treat as soon as she looks at you. The sequence is as such:
- You make the kissy sound with your mouth with a treat held at your eye level.
- The second your dog looks at you, toss the treat on the floor at a distance. Timing is very important with this exercise, so make sure there is no delay between the moment she makes eye contact and the moment you toss the treat.
- Do this 10-15 times until your dog gets the hang of it.
At this point, your dog will have grasped the concept that every time you make the noise, your dog associates it with receiving a treat and will come running to you with anticipation. Once your dog gets the hang of it, try to do this from across the room. If your dog drops everything she's doing and comes running towards you, you know you are on the right path.
Next, practice this exercise when your dog sees stimuli out of the window. Practice first with stimuli that don't create too strong reactions such as have a family member or friend walking back and forth. Toss the treats away from the window.
Once your dog responds well, start practicing upon seeing triggers. If your dog doesn't respond well or won't take the treat, this is often a sign that your dog is over threshold so you'll need to take a step back in the process and practice at lower levels of distractions, practicing more with less intense forms of triggers.
When you can't do this exercise and actively supervise to redirect, remember to keep your dog away from windows or he'll quickly revert to his usual behaviors. Keep him in a room the farthest away from windows or draw the curtains or blinds so that he doesn't feel the need to react. Buffer sounds with music or white noise.
A Word of Caution
Dogs who have little or no impulse control and who have never received any training in their lives may struggle if these exercises are implemented too quickly and too much is asked at once. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to helping dogs attain better impulse control.
Watch for signs of your dog struggling or getting frustrated. If your dog is scratching, yawning or licking, these are often signs that your dog is having difficulty coping. Such displacement signs in dogs should, therefore, tell you that it's time to make the exercise easier by splitting it into smaller steps and making it easier.
Warning: in some cases, some dogs may also get aggressive when frustrated. If your dog at any time shows signs of aggression, toss a treat to redirect, stop the exercise and ask for professional help.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 04, 2020:
I am stuck on the first 3 exercises. My little dog has a complete spaz when she sees the leash and pulls for the whole walk. But I always thought the walk was for her, not for me so I let her. I will try these methods and see where we are from there. Good advice. Thanks.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 01, 2020:
Hi Drew, glad this article on impulse control training in dogs has taught you a lot. Dogs are smart and training them can be fun if we make it a rewarding activity without pressure.
Devika Primic on July 31, 2020:
Sounds like these games are exciting for dogs. Keeps them occupied. Dogs often need to play and your idea of these games makes them feel less frustrated.
Drew Agravante from Philippines, Currently in Qatar on July 30, 2020:
Wow, I learned a lot, thanks. It's very informative especially for me and my family who own a dog. Gotta put this info to good use.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 30, 2020:
Hi Linda, many dogs who have a hard time coping with their frustration benefit from these games. As always though it's important to take baby steps, as better impulse control is something that takes some time to master.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 30, 2020:
Impulse control games for dogs are something that can be easily incorporated during the day even in busy households. It's important to keep the games fun and rewarding.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 29, 2020:
This article contains some very useful information and guidance. Thanks for once again sharing your knowledge and experience, Adrienne.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 29, 2020:
This is an excellent article on such good ways to train your dog. I was not familiar with the term 'impulse control games' and this sounds like the best possible training for your dog.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 29, 2020:
Impulse control games are helpful as they teach dogs better coping skills. If we think about it, training dogs to a great extent is mostly about teaching dogs the art of delayed gratification.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 29, 2020:
We have never taught our dogs such things and probably should have. Thanks for the tips should we start over with another one.