How to Help Your Dog Develop Impulse Control

On Animal Planet’s Underdog to Wonderdog people were introduced to Brutus, a 1- year-old Labrador Retriever. Brutus was surrendered to a shelter because his family said that once their daughter went off to school they didn’t have the time to care for him. But, once we met Brutus it seemed that this owner surrender was probably due to the family becoming fed up with Brutus’ behavior (albeit behavior they had allowed to develop).

While we have certainly worked with dogs who are larger than Brutus, I have to give him credit for being a dog who has just about as much energy and muscle mass as seems possible in one canine entity. Even our rescue coordinator, Ryan, who is in pretty great shape, was out of breath after walking Brutus a short distance. Add to this strength and energy an almost complete lack of impulse control and you have the makings of a dog who is difficult and exhausting to be around.

On the positive side, Brutus had a goofy, playful, spirit. After our initial assessment it seemed Brutus had no body handling issues. A good first sign for our ability to place Brutus with a new, loving, and committed family.

Ryan had a particular family in mind who he had been hoping to find a dog from a rescue organization. They have five children (quintuplets!), and a Labrador Retriever of about 10 years old. They were looking to rescue a dog who had enough energy that he could keep up with their house full of kids, since they felt their resident dog was starting to slow down a bit.

We all knew that this was a tall order. Lots of well socialized dogs can enjoy life with a family with children. But, five six-year-old children is a lot for anyone to handle. Especially a dog. So, our next step was to see how Brutus behaved with children. After introducing him to a number of children, one at a time, he seemed to not only tolerate their attention, but to truly enjoy it. We took it a step further and allowed a number of children to greet him at once, and again, his body language and behavior indicated that he was perfectly happy having numerous little hands petting him at once.

This was a big relief and meant that the possibility of finding a wonderful placement for Brutus in a family with kids had just come closer to reality. But, if this was going to be Brutus’ new family, we also had to make sure he was comfortable around other dogs, since they already had another Labrador Retriever. Due to Brutus’ size and strength, I decided to make his first dog-to-dog introduction with my dog Moka. Moka is an 80 pound Doberman Pinscher who has good social skills. Since puppyhood, she has had regular play sessions with dogs of all sizes. So, I was confident that she would be able to handle Brutus.

Brutus charged up to Moka in much the same way he had charged up to everyone else he had met since we had taken him from the shelter. Her body language clearly said “Slow it down and back off.” Unfortunately, Brutus didn’t pick up what to most dogs would be obvious cues. Just her stillness alone would be enough for most dogs to read as obvious way of saying they should take it slow. But, not Brutus. So, after a few moments of tolerating his pushy pants behavior by sitting calmly, and averting her eyes, Moka had enough. She air snapped at Brutus. Seeing a dog of her size and type do this can be scary. But, knowing her well, it was clear to me she did not want to do harm to Brutus. If she had, she would have made contact with him. Dogs tend to be very specific and accurate. Meaning, if she had wanted to make contact and bite him, she would have.

But, this display inflicted no harm to Brutus. After a second interaction like this, Brutus finally picked up on Moka’s no longer so subtle cues that he needed to show some self control around her. Ryan and I had never seen Brutus so calm, cool and collected as he was after this. He simply stood next to me with a slack leash and sniffed the ground. This is a calming signal, a way for dogs to calm themselves and other dogs around them. Brutus was making a very polite and clear statement to Moka that he now understood he would have to show impulse control around her. Our next step was to start helping Brutus show similar impulse control with people.

Brutus’ lack of impulse control with people showed itself in a myriad of ways. Some were, to some degree, funny to watch and experience. That is, until you consider that this behavior is probably the reason his first family gave him up to a shelter and that they also put Brutus and the people around him at risk of being hurt. So, we knew we had to get to work to help him develop enough self-control that he would have a solid foundation that his new family could build on.

I started with the simple exercise of holding a treat or a toy near Brutus. If he jumped or grabbed for it I simply moved it out of his reach. At first, as with some dogs, this seemed to stimulate him to try harder to get the toy. No surprise considering it seemed he had little experience not getting what he wanted immediately, whether that be moving forward when walked on leash or taking things he wanted from counters.

But, after about ten repetitions, Brutus started to pause before jumping. A clear sign that he was starting to make a connection between his behavior and the consequences (i.e. jumping up to grab something makes it go away) and that he was taking a moment to think and try to solve the problem he faced; How do I get that toy or treat? For even the slightest pause I marked the behavior (by saying “yes” or clicking the clicker) and then gave him what he wanted. I gradually increased the duration of time I expected him to pause (by only marking and rewarding those which were a bit longer than the previous). And of course, made sure to also occasionally mark and reward briefer displays of self control as a way of helping avoid frustration on his part. That is, you don’t want to always ask for more and more. Sometimes you need to also reinforce behaviors that are easier for your dog.

After this, we moved on to working with the food on the floor. Again, picking up or covering the food with my hand if he went for it before being given permission when I said “okay.” At this point, Brutus was still quite a handful. But, was making progress. So, I thought it would be a good time to take him to his family for a 24 hour test drive. Since this was a busy household (five 6-year-olds and another dog) I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to get a better sense of any specific issues that I might need to work on with the family and of course, with Brutus.

Brutus’ new family has a beautiful home with a safely enclosed yard where they planned to spend plenty of time supervising him as he romped around. Brutus seemed like a very happy boy the moment he stepped his paws on his new grass lawn, but his happiness was trumped by the joy on the faces of his new family. I spent some time with them discussing Brutus’ issues, the ways they could manage him to set him up for success and the specific training exercises they would need to work on to further Brutus’ training.

When I headed home, I was hopeful that this night spent at his new home would give me an opportunity to better guage the specific issues I might need to work on with him and with his new family. Unfortunately, what came to light was a situation that was far worse than I had imagined would happen. Brutus had grabbed a sandwich off the kitchen counter and then growled when they tried to take it away. He had also gotten into a verbal squabble with the family’s other dog. So, I headed back to their house to find out more and to potentially take Brutus back with me.

After having a discussion with the family about both incidents, I asked them if they felt comfortable having Brutus spend the rest of the night. They were adamant that they were not only committed to Brutus, but also understanding of what he had been through and the effect it had on him. At this point it was obvious that we had found a truly wonderful family who was committed to helping a rescue dog overcome the issues that had caused him to be surrendered to a shelter.

The next day I headed back to their home with Ryan and spent time working with Brutus and them on anti-resource guarding exercises such as the give/take game. We also worked more on impulse control exercises and further discussed the need for careful management to prevent many potential problems, including issues between the two dogs. Brutus, Ryan and I then headed back to the city and continued our work together.

The next time we visited the family’s it was to bring Brutus there for good. After all of our work together, he had made great improvements in regards to impulse control and his resource guarding issue. He had also had lots of play sessions with other dogs and was starting to show good signs of having better dog-to-dog social skills. Just as importantly, the family was ready to take on the challenge of continuing to help Brutus to improve. As a result, he is now a big, energetic Labrador living happily with his forever family.