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Service Dog Quest: Impulse Control

During the 2014 Service Dog Challenge Week Four, you started reinforcing handler focus. By this point, your partner should offer rock-solid eye contact almost as a default. Now, it’s time to engrain that handler focus in all situations and make it a habit. If there’s something distracting going on, then self control and impulse control are the only things keeping your partner’s attention on you.

This week (2014 Service Dog Challenge Week 6), we’re focusing on building impulse control and self control in your Service Dog Impulse Control TrainingService Dog or Service Dog in Training. While handler focus is the perfect place to START, without extending your partner’s willingness to offer eye contact to various, commonly encountered situations, then it’s a behavior with form but no function. It’s flashy to as your partner for eye contact and immediate get it, but it’s the function that’s important to working dogs and Service Dogs. As such, we’re going to start working on embedding handler focus as a default behavior your Service Dog or SDiT offers automatically when presented with something (food, petting, toys, or any other distraction) that may be inherently more rewarding than you (or offering eye contact) may be.

In psychology, impulse control is intimately related to “delayed gratification,” or the “ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. ” Typically, the immediate reward (or instant gratification) is smaller/less satisfying than the reward available if one is able to control oneself and wait (or delay gratification). As an example, if you give a child a dollar while at the store, and then tell them they can either spend it now for something small or trade it in next week for $10, the child can either purchase something small and with little value, but have it RIGHT NOW, or wait for a reward that’s literally 10 times more awesome. Some kids can wait, and some can’t – it all depends on their impulse control.

Dogs are similar, but impulse control in dogs is a learned and conditioned behavior. A dog will almost always select the most immediate reward (sniffing the ground for a single dropped treat) vs. waiting for a bigger reward (holding sustained eye contact even though a treat was dropped on the floor in order to earn 15 treats given in a row) because instinct says DIVE FOR WHAT’S AVAILABLE. Dogs jump on people for attention, bolt through doors to go exploring, pull on the leash to sniff that awesome thing over there, steal food off counters and a million other self-rewarding activities just because they’re dogs. It’s what comes naturally. If you want a different, unnatural behavior from your Service Dog Impulse Control Trainingpartner (like sitting politely and waiting to be released through doors and gates or happily heeling by your side), then you must teach your partner acceptable alternatives. At the end of the day, most of what you’re teaching boils down to impulse control.

Our goal is to help condition your partner to patiently delaying gratification in all circumstances and thereby building impulse and self control into their core personality. The results of this training will show up in everything from interaction with distractions to crate/door/car/gate manners (waiting until released vs. darting through without a care in the world) to leash walking to anything else with an immediate reward that seems awesome until it’s compared to the reward of refraining from the instinctive behavior.

2014 Service Dog Challenge: Week Six

Week 6 Goal: Extend dog’s handler focus from cued to habit

Week 6 Focus: Building canine’s impulse and self control in highly distracting situations by rewarding delayed gratification

Week 6 Equipment: Food (hot dogs or cheese works wells) cut into quarter or half inch cubes, Regular Rewards, Clicker/Verbal/Signal Marker, and 2014 Service Dog Challenge binder

Week 6 Time Commitment: 10-15 minutes/day

Week Six Instructions and Checklist:

Service Dog Impulse Control Training1. Review your Service Dog’s or SDiT’s  list of top distractions you compiled during Week Two: Measuring Current Training. Consider if you’ve learned anything else about your partner’s response to distractions or if you’d change/add/modify/take away anything on the list.

2. Label a piece of paper “Week Four” and re-write your partner’s distraction list. If it’s still the same as it was in Week Two, then just transfer it. If it’s changed, though, then make your new list reflect your changes. File your list in your Challenge binder.

3. Forget about your list. While important for mental organization, we’re not going to be using it until later.

4. Grab a big handful of food that’s cut into small cubes. Even if you don’t normally utilize food rewards, this phase is important to begin teaching your partner about delayed gratification. Place a piece of food in your hand, show it to your partner and make a fist. Your dog will likely begin nosing, licking and nudging your hand. The instant the contact stops and your partner sits or makes eye contact, open your hand and let her eat the food.

If you use a closed fist to signal “touch” or nudging at your hand is a trained task, use this alternative: Place a piece of food on your knee while you’re sitting and your partner is in front of you. Keep your hand close by to cover the food so your partner can’t take it off your knee. The second your dog stops going for the food, licking your hand covering it or focusing on it and shifts focus to you/offers eye contact, pick the food up off your knee and reward her.

5. Continue this impulse control exercise until your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training pays zero attention to Service Dog Impulse Control Trainingfood in your hand or on your knee. At that point, begin placing the food on a table, chair or on the floor. Be ready to step on or cover the food if necessary. Reward when your partner ignores the food and instead sits/focuses on you.

6. Integrate surprise and movement into the routine. Place food on the floor in a bowl, on a table or on random surfaces while your partner is out of the room. Place your partner on leash and enter the training area. Walk through the area. Always be ready to cover the distraction food and always reward impulse control heavily. When your partner displays no inclination to engaging with the distraction food and you don’t have even consider moving to cover it, you’re ready to move on.

7. Continue building your partner’s habitual, purposeful ignoring of distraction food by repeating the above exercise at the park, during a public access session and in various locations. Work to generalize the behavior to all areas and as an automatic response. 

8. (OPTIONAL) Read through these “Doggie Zen” instructions for a different take on the above exercise.

BONUS: Once a day, play the “CHILL OUT GAME” with your partner. The Chillout Game works to build an “off switch” into high energy/chaotic moments and to teach your Service Dog that the quicker she can instantly contain herself regardless of the level of activity, the more quickly she gets rewarded and the fun starts again. The Chillout Game builds spring loaded obedience and responses into every day interaction.

Got questions, comments, concerns, thoughts or ideas about this week’s Service Dog Challenge or want to share a resource/article/video on impulse control you found helpful? Chime in with a comment and let us know!



  • Darren February 13, 2014

    Thanks…. I am learning everyday !. We have 2 service dogs in training. Their needs differ . They are just starting to see the true pack leader .(me) It’s Fun. – it is a challenge for me . Your posts keep me continuing to grow. Thanks !.

  • N Bovey February 13, 2014

    In #4, do you really want the dog being rewarded with the food item that was in your hand? Doesn’t this encourage the dog to keep trying where if you reward with something different you encourage the dog to truly leave it?


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