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8 Exercises for Training a Dog's Impulse Control and Frustration Tolerance


Training a Dog's Impulse Control and Frustration Tolerance

Training a dog's impulse control and improving their frustration tolerance is important. Just like children, dogs aren't born with sufficient impulse control and built-in frustration tolerance. It's a skill that is learned through life experiences. And just like in adult humans, dogs who haven't developed sufficient tolerance may revert to undesirable behaviors that may even surface as aggressive displays.

But what is frustration tolerance, and most of all, how can puppies be taught to cope with it so they can grow into well-adjusted adult dogs?

In humans, it's quite easy to notice people who are unable to cope with their daily frustrations. These are people who lash out at their employees, smash the guitar on the floor because they were unable to get the right cord on a song they were learning, engage in road rage when there is a car blocking their way, and so forth.

Normal daily mishaps that others would normally ignore or be able to accept create havoc in the lives of people with low frustration tolerance.

Dogs have different priorities compared to people, so your dog may care less about a traffic jam or a flight delay. He'll be more likely to get frustrated if you must clip his nails and he doesn't like that, if he sees another dog and you prevent him from greeting it, or if you refuse to give him attention when he craves it. Just like a child, he may throw a temper tantrum with whining, barking, and even nipping behaviors.

Learning Impulse Control as Puppies

How do dogs develop low impulse control and frustration tolerance? Well, for starters, all pups lack some level of impulse control, but singleton puppies and orphaned puppies may be more prone to develop frustration tolerance since they lack littermates or a mom who can teach them how to cope with frustration.

Mother dog arrives? All pups rush to nurse, but not always will the pup get to nurse on his favorite nipple. The pup may also have to wait his turn to be cleaned by mother dog. Play and other interactions with littermates also work as a valuable aid to help teach tolerance.

The way the puppies are raised may also play a role. It's the role of new puppy owners to continue applying tolerance coping skills in their puppies. This means learning to recognize when the puppy behaves in certain ways because of real needs or just as a way to attain attention.

Puppies Whining in the Crate

If a puppy cries in the crate after all his needs have been met (he has been fed, has recently drank, and he has gone potty outside), it's most likely that the puppy is whining in protest because he wants more social interaction.

Sometimes one may stumble on cases where, regardless of all the steps we take in making sure a pup's needs are met, some puppies just don't seem to know when to stop asking for interaction, or maybe they are just tired and start whining out of being cranky.

Helping Cranky Puppies Relax

In those cases, I have found that it's in the pup's best interest to wait a bit rather than rush to the pup and give it more interaction which makes it more difficult for the pup to fall asleep. Puppies need sleep. Waiting just a bit often leads to the puppy falling asleep or self-soothe by chewing on a toy and then falling asleep, just like babies self-soothe when given a pacifier.

Now, does this mean I forget about the whining episode altogether and allow this behavior to be rehearsed over and over every time the pup needs a nap? No. Afterwards, a mental note is needed to prevent this behavior pattern in the first place next time.

Perhaps this is one of those pups who just has a hard time relaxing, and therefore covering the crate with a blanket or dimming the light is all that's needed to help the pup chill rather than keeping that active brain stimulated.

Measuring Signs of Improvement

Some pups just fall asleep like rocks when crated, others have a harder time and need a little bit of help. I then measure the behavior. If the whining reduces (some will emit a little moan before falling asleep, which I find adorable), then bingo, I got it right.

If not, more measures are needed (DAP diffuser, different type of enclosure, calming music, keeping crate closer and gradually distancing, dimming lights more, etc).

Opening the crate with a puppy whining from being cranky or wanting more social interaction, at this point, will only teach the puppy to use his whining to get what he wants.

Of course, we want to make sure we have acclimated the puppy to the crate as much as possible to make being in there as stress free as possible to rule out whining due to other reasons. We want to make sure all needs are met. Was the puppy exercised? Is it too hot? Too cold? We want to make sure the puppy was conditioned to be closed for gradually longer increments of time. Always keep the emotional side of things in mind so to work on the underlying issues.

Positive Doesn't Mean Permissive!

In the training world, it's a big misconception to think that positive trainers are always giving in to all the dog's whims. The saying "positive doesn't mean permissive" helps debunk this myth. Positive trainers do apply consequences to a dog's actions, only that the consequences chosen are not aversive in nature.

Impulse Control Dog Training: Sitting Nicely at the Door

Impulse Control Dog Training: Sitting Nicely at the Door

Teaching Tolerance Frustration to Dogs

A dog's philosophy of life seems quite opportunistic. If dogs could talk, they would say "carpe diem"—seize the day—when opportunities knock at the doggy door. A dog sees you drop a slice of bologna? He'll likely run to get it. A squirrel crosses the road? He won't think twice before chasing it. Neighbor dog walks by the yard? He'll rush to greet him. Now, rather than later, seems to be a dog's motto. Yet, through training opportunities, we can train a dog's impulse control.

Avoid These Mistakes

You may stumble every now and then on some well-meaning websites or trainers suggesting to do the following in order to train frustration tolerance in young puppies.

  • If you pick up your puppy and your puppy squirms and wriggles in hopes to be placed back down, wait for your puppy to stop squirming before being placed down. If you place him down when he's squirming you will have just taught him that squirming works and he will do it all the time.
  • If your puppy whines and paws to get out of the crate because he dreads being closed there, wait for him to calm down and then open the crate. If you open the crate when he's whining and pawing, you will have taught him that whining works and he will likely do that again and again next time.
  • If your puppy has a tantrum when you touch his paws, stop touching his paws only when his tantrum is over. If you stop touching his paws when he is throwing the tantrum, you will have taught him to use a tantrum to get what he wants next time.

What do these scenarios have in common? They are based on negative reinforcement. In other words, something the puppy doesn't like is stopped when the puppy behaves in an acceptable manner.

If the puppy dislikes having his feet touched, your touch is removed only once he is calmer. If the puppy doesn't like to be held, he is placed on the floor only once his tantrum is over. If the puppy dislikes being in the crate, he is removed from the crate only once he stops whining.

Changing the Dog's Emotions

While it's true that some level of impulse control can be attained this way, it doesn't really do much to change the dog's emotions about these things. In these cases, it would be far more productive to teach the puppy to enjoy being picked up, having his paws touched and enjoying staying in the crate than just making a point about teaching him how to behave nicely.

So when a puppy or dog misbehaves, it's important to first determine what is triggering his behavior. Is the dog pawing at the muzzle because he doesn't like how it feels? Instead of waiting it out to remove it, teach him to enjoy wearing a muzzle.

Is the puppy whining when you leave the room? Teach him to gradually accept brief absences and that great things happen when you leave the room. Is your puppy squirming when you hold him? Get him used to enjoying being held. With time, he'll tolerate being held because he looks forward to it.

You want to change the pup's emotions, rather than having a pup who gets tired of fighting and looks calm, because he has really just given up. Yes, some dogs may eventually learn to stop squirming and stop whining (negative reinforcement tends to work) but that doesn't necessarily mean that next time they'll be looking forward to being picked up, having their toes touched, or wearing the muzzle. A day may come when they may decide to react, and defensively too.

Through desensitization and counterconditioning, you can teach your puppy to enjoy things he perceives as aversive. After all, do you prefer a teacher who would pull your hair (and old-school teachers used to do this) until you give the right answer to a math problem, or one who would take her time to explain how math works and make it a fun and enjoyable learning experience?

Dog Impulse Control Training: Sitting to Have Leash Put on

Dog Impulse Control Training: Sitting to Have Leash Put on

8 Exercises for Training Impulse Control in Dogs

It is my belief that impulse control exercises have their place in training and behavior modification. I use impulse control exercises to teach frustration tolerance when I know that a dog is acting out of frustration and impatience and not because he is struggling with something he has a hard time accepting. Here are some impulse control exercises I use.

  1. Teaching the dog to wait at the door instead of bolting out.
  2. Teaching the dog to sit and wait to enter the car once they hear the command.
  3. Teaching the dog to sit and wait for me to place the food bowl down instead of jumping on me and almost knocking me over.
  4. Teaching the dog to walk by and ignore some tempting food on the sidewalk (that could even be harmful) instead of pulling to get it. The advantage is that he will get more and better treats when he "leaves it."
  5. Teaching a dog that if I keep my arm stretched out with a treat in my hand and he looks at me first instead of jumping and barking in frustration, that behavior will make my hand release the treat.
  6. Teaching that whining and barking doesn't unlock my attention, only quiet, calm behavior does.
  7. Teaching that calm behavior gets a game of fetch or tug started.
  8. Teaching gradually by rewarding split seconds of calm behaviors and then building on duration. If you ask too much at once, especially in the initial stages of learning, you'll likely cause frustration.

Basically, I look forward to teaching these three important points:

  1. That calm behaviors unlock a world of rewards.
  2. That frustrated behaviors don't unlock rewards.
  3. That by waiting and not getting a reward right away, there are far more and better rewards.

Watch for Signs of Frustration in Dogs

When training a dog that easily gets frustrated, it's important to recognize signs of frustration building up. The following are common signs of frustration in dogs.

7 Signs of Frustration and Tips on How to Deal With Them

  1. If Rover gets a sudden itchy fit, you are most likely dealing with an out-of-context displacement behavior; basically, Rover's way of dealing with a frustrating situation.
  2. Some dogs may start chewing on the leash when they get frustrated. If you notice any signs of frustration, try to split the exercise into smaller, attainable steps and reward each little piece of progress. Work in small, short sessions to help your dog succeed and build tolerance as you progress.
  3. Some dogs start chewing or licking their paws.
  4. Some dogs start pacing back and forth when they are frustrated.
  5. Whining or barking can be vocal manifestations of frustration.
  6. If your dog tends to get frustrated when on leash and sees other dogs or people, read my article on barrier frustration. And if your dog gets too revved up at the sight of treats try using some kibble. Many dogs are bored by kibble, so in a frustrated Fido, it may just work right to take the edge off.
  7. Last but not least, be wary that, in some cases, frustrated dogs may even engage in aggressive behaviors! In such a case, or if you are having problems dealing with your dog's frustration, don't hesitate to contact a force-free behavior consultant to help you out.

Frustration tolerance depicts a dog's ability to cope with not getting what it wants. Some dogs are better in this than others, but with time and consistency, you are able to change most dogs' frustration threshold for the better.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I stop my puppy from peeing in her crate?

Answer: Make sure the crate is of the correct size to induce her instinct not to want to soil where she sleep to kick in. A correctly sized crate should be large enough for her to turn around, stand up and lie down, but snug enough to not allow her to pee in one corner and sleep comfortably in the other.

Also, clean up her accidents with an enzyme-based cleaner so to remove odors and make sure you take her out as often as possible. Young puppies have very little bladder control and may need to be taken out every hour at first. She'll need to be taken out first thing in the morning, when waking up from a nap, after meals, and every hour or so if she's under 12 weeks during the day. At night, she can hold it longer, and you may do with just 2-3 trips.

Avoid getting angry at your puppy when she pees as this may trigger submissive urination and may cause her to pee when you are not around.

Consider that puppies from stores are harder to crate train because they have learned to potty when they need to inside their cages.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 21, 2014:

Great tips and so useful to dog owners.