Updated: Nov 14
Impulse control with dogs means that they wait patiently for something they want, rather than rudely trying to get it. To be fair dogs really don’t have a sense of rudeness or politeness. However, we can teach dogs to be polite through training, and playing impulse control dog games is a great way to do so.
Self-control training for dogs is really important. After all, we’re often asking our dogs to do something when they’d really rather be doing something else!
I love playing impulse control dog training games with any dog, but it’s especially useful with puppies and adolescent dogs. It’s amazing to see a dog start to understand that the way they get what they want is by being polite and waiting for it! Here are some of my favorite impulse control games!
Slow Treat - teaches self-control in dogs
Slow treat is one of the best self-control exercises for dogs to start with if a dog has no impulse control when there’s food around, and tends to jump up on people when they are holding something. Even worse is the dog who attempts to steal food being carried by a person!
Start by placing your dog in sit. Holding a treat with your hand high over the dog’s head, start to lower your hand towards the dog’s mouth. If your dog jumps up, then abruptly snatch your hand away and try again. Once you can get to within a few inches of the dog’s mouth without his trying to snatch the treat, praise and deliver the treat.
Be careful not to frustrate your dog. If you repeatedly have to snatch your hand away because your dog is jumping up, then make it easier to help your dog be successful. Either move your hand faster, and/or praise the dog after moving your treat holding hand only a few inches before swiftly moving your hand in to deliver the treat into your dog’s mouth. You want to give your dog some easy wins so they don’t give up. When first working on this game you should move your hand pretty swiftly towards your dog’s mouth. As your dog becomes successful with that pace you can start moving your hand slower and slower.
Once your dog is doing a great job waiting patiently for the treat coming from directly overhead (the twelve o’clock position), start “working the clock” towards the 6 o’clock position. The 1 o’clock position would be slightly off to the right of directly over the dog’s head, and 2 o’clock coming in at a 45 degree angle towards the dog’s mouth.
Practice this in a variety of different locations so that your dog gets really good at this.
Hand Zen - Impulse control dogs will love learning
One of my favorite dog training impulse control games is called “Hand Zen” and I first learned about it from dog trainer Hannah Brannigan, although many trainers use this exercise.
The end goal of this exercise is to teach the dog that it is in the dog’s best interest to wait for the human to deliver food, rather than be rude and try and snatch it away. This is a great exercise to help prevent such problems as a dog grabbing food off a plate or, even worse, out of a person’s hands.
This is not a “Leave It” exercise, but rather all about teaching a dog impulse control. Don’t cue the dog to “leave it” – let him figure it out on his own. If you make this into a “leave it” exercise your dog may assume it’s ok to snatch food unless they hear the words. This way your dog should learn that food in human hands is unavailable unless deliberately handed to the dog.
Step 1: Hold a handful of treats in a closed fist in one hand and a treat with which to reward in the other. Hold the handful of treats shoulder level to the dog in front of his nose. Wait until the dog shows avoidance behavior (moves away from your hand – even if only a few inches, turns his head away, takes a step backwards, turns his whole body away). Use your marker word and reward with a treat.
Step 2: Hold a handful of treats in your hand palm up about 12 inches from your dog’s nose. Slowly open your hand. If your dog moves in towards the treats close your hand up. Repeat until your hand can open fully without your dog attempting to snatch the treats. Immediately give him a treat by taking your empty hand and picking a treat off of the other hand, and then delivering it to the dog. Keep the hand holding the treats stationary. If, as you are doing this, he tries to get the treats again, simply close your hand up.
Step 3: Practice until your dog waits patiently and doesn’t attempt to get the treats from your open hand. Our goal is that your dog will remain where he is while your hand stays open and you can feed him a treat with opposite hand every second or so until all the treats are gone.
Step 4: Practice Hand Zen with you changing your position: standing, seated in a chair and sitting on the floor.
Step 5: Make sure to play the game in different rooms of your house and outside. Dogs who learn how to do something in one context won’t necessarily know how to do it in another context. If dog trainers got a dollar every time we heard “But he does it at home!”, we would be rich!
In addition to helping create a well-mannered dog, Hand Zen also will help teach your dog to wait for delivery of food during dog training exercises. For instance, if you work on Hand Zen before you start training your dog to stay, you’ll have a dog that more easily remains in position when you go to deliver the treat as a reinforcement.
Additionally, it can be used for dogs who get the general concept of stay, but tend to have difficulty keeping from shifting their paws or body when sitting. In this situation you’ll close your hand when the dog moves their front paws to let the dog know that reinforcement isn’t available for that behavior. You’ll be completely silent, letting the hand do your talking for you. When the front paws stop moving you would open your hand to communicate to the dog that’s the behavior that is reinforcable, and make good on that promise by delivering treats.
Floor Zen – another game for teaching a dog impulse control
Floor Zen is the next step after your dog has mastered Hand Zen. Together these impulse control dog training games work well to help your dog learn to be patient when food is out, in the hope that good manners may result in their getting some.
Step 1: Place a handful of treats on the floor about a foot from your dog. You can ask for a sit or down if you would like. Start with the food that’s on the floor covered by your hand. If your dog licks or pushes at your hand with his nose ignore it. Wait until he is showing avoidance behavior.
Step 2: Move your hand to expose the treats. If your dog attempts to get the treats then cover up again. If your dog continues to show avoidance behavior pick up one of the treats and deliver it to your dog’s nose.
If your dog struggles with this step you can hold a treat in one hand, while covering the treats on the floor with the other hand. Reinforce avoidance of the covered treats a few times before attempting to expose the treats.
Step 3: Repeat Step 2 only covering the treats if your dog makes a move to eat them. Our goal is that your dog will patiently wait for you to deliver the treats without your having to cover them with your hand. Avoiding treats that are visible is great self-control!
Step 4: Wait for your dog to take his eyes off the treats before you reinforce. At this point it does not have to be eye contact – if your dog shifts their eyes from the treats, that will be sufficient and should be reinforced.
Step 5: Wait for your dog to look at your face before you reinforce.
Step 6: Practice in a variety of different environments with your dog in both a sit and down.
Step 7: Gradually increase the amount of time between your delivery of treats. Vary the rate you deliver the treat to keep your dog guessing as to when the next one will be given.
Special Note: If your dog is in a sit and lies down simply lure him back into a sit. Treat delivery when your dog is in a sit position should be high up so as to reinforce that position.
Wait at the Door - self-control dog training that will make life easier!
Wait at the door is not so much a game as it is an important life skill. After learning doorway Impulse control, dogs will not only be much more polite, but will be safer since they’ll be less likely to escape out your door and run into the road.
Wait differs from stay in that stay is a behavior that tells the dog not to move from a particular position until released, while wait tells the dog not to move past the threshold of a doorway.
There may be times where you will ask your dog to wait, but you won’t allow him to go through the doorway. Some examples of times you might use wait in this way are taking the garbage out, bringing in groceries, or leaving the house without your dog accompanying you. If you had asked for a stay and then went to work, theoretically your dog should still be in that same stay when you get home 9 hours later!
Position yourself so that your dog is in front of you and the door behind you tell your dog “wait”. As you open the door you may have to use your body to block your dog from going through the doorway. You will not repeat the word “wait” no matter how long it takes to get your dog to do so. Try not to use your leash – we don’t want our dogs to get used to responding to tension on the leash.
The movements you’ll make are a lot like a dance. What you do will depend on what your dog does. If you move between the dog and the door and the dog backs up, you should step aside leaving the doorway opening free. As you do this you need to be watch your dog, and if your dog steps forward you should immediately block the opening of the doorway by stepping in.
You should continue to do this dance until you step aside and your dog hesitates. At this point praise your dog and give your dog a few treats. If your dog is struggling to control their impulses, you might find it helpful to toss a few treats into the room behind your dog.
After you’ve given your dog treats, and the opening to the doorway is open because you are not blocking it, release him with a cheery “Ok!” Be sure that you aren’t using praise as your release cue. You want to reserve that for letting your dog know he’s doing a good job, and NOT as a release.
The really nice thing about wait is that you are using a real-life reward. Because most dogs want to go through the doorway, releasing them to do so IS their reward.
Practice this at a variety of doorways and before you release your dog from the car. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your dog learns to wait at doorways!
Impulse control dog training games - Conclusion
With impulse control, dogs will be much more polite and easier to live with. Practicing impulse control training and games for dogs a few times a week for just a few minutes per session will go a long way towards helping your dog learn some manners. Give it a try!
I also offer in-person training within a 30 minute drive of Ixonia, WI.
I would love to work with you and your dog!