Teaching Your Dog Self Control

The benefits of developing your dog’s skill at self-control.


By Mardi Richmond

Recently, at a dog-related event, I had the opportunity to witness dozens of acts of self-control. There was the cute Lab who sat patiently in front of a five-year-old, ice-cream-eating child. There was the mixed-breed dog who politely turned her head and moved away when an adolescent Pug lunged in her direction.

One of the strongest examples was a young Border Collie who noticed a great game of Frisbee happening a short distance away. He started toward the group, obviously eager to join the game. He took one step, and then seemed to remember that he was with his person. He glanced up at his person (who was chatting with another person and unaware of her dog’s dilemma) and then the Border Collie made the choice to sit and patiently watch the game instead of trying to join it.

Of course, there were also a few “out of control” exchanges at this same event. And in a few instances, only the owner’s vigilant management prevented the dog from becoming out of control. So what made the difference? Why do some dogs exhibit such great self-control while others are lacking?

Self-control is often thought of as an inherent quality – something a dog (or person) either has or doesn’t have. Admittedly, some of us may be more naturally capable of self-control than others!

But self-control is much more than just behaving calmly or even resisting excitement. It is more than being well trained. It is an emotional skill. Self-control can be taught and developed much the way physical skills like loose-leash walking can be taught.

How Dogs Learn Self-Control
Dogs, like people, learn self-control through life experiences and through interactions with dogs and people. They learn from the “consequences” of their actions when they experiment with behavior. All types of consequences (both positive experiences and negative experiences) influence the development of self-control.

Puppies and young dogs, for example, may learn to have self-control around dogs during play. If a puppy plays nicely and with restraint (showing good self-control), the play session is likely to continue. However if the pup bites too hard, becomes too rambunctious, or is otherwise “out of control,” the other dog may offer a warning and then disengage from the play.

Since most of us live with our dogs in a controlled environment, with fences and leashes that enforce our control, it may be difficult for some dogs to learn self-control strictly through their daily interactions; they may need a little help from us.

This is where training for self-control comes in. You really can help your dog gain this fundamental skill. Training exercises to teach self-control involve three elements:

• Teaching the dog that being calm is an option.

• Allowing the dog the opportunity to experiment (safely!) so that he begins to understand that self-control is a rewarding option.

• Teaching the dog to “listen” in the face of excitement or arousal.

Step One: It’s OK To Be Calm
For some dogs, being calm comes naturally. But many dogs, especially dogs with self-control issues, actually need to be taught that being calm is an option and a good choice!

• Sit calmly. Sit or down are good foundation exercises for self-control. When a dog sits and stays sitting (or stays in the down position) for several minutes, he learns how to be calm. In her book, Understanding and Teaching Self Control, Suzanne Clothier writes, “A dog who is lacking self-control simply does not know that it is possible to sit quietly in the face of distractions.” We have to show our dogs that it is possible!

Start with practicing “sit” or “down” in a low-distraction environment for one to five minutes. If your dog has trouble holding a sit or down, you may need to start with only a few seconds and build up slowly to a minute or longer. (See “Way to Stay,” March 2006 for more tips on teaching your dog to sit/stay.)

Once your dog does well in your living room and other easy places, start practicing out in the world. Slowly increase the difficulty of distractions. A dog who can sit or down and hang out for several minutes in the face of distractions is learning that being calm is an option.

Note: In the rest of the article, we’ll refer to asking your dog to “sit” as a default calm behavior. If it’s easier for your dog to lie down than sit (many breeds find it to be more comfortable due to their conformation), substitute “down” for sit in the instructions that follow.

• Relax in new places. When your dog has the idea of sitting calmly, take the exercise a step further. Teach your dog that he can “hang out” quietly with you in new but low-stimulation environments. Head for a quiet space – perhaps the neighborhood park, under an oak tree in a field, or even a new spot in your backyard.

Take a book and perhaps a blanket to sit on. Keep your dog on leash, and invite him to sit or lie down (whichever he is more comfortable with), open your book, and settle in for a few minutes. When your dog settles, quietly praise him.

• Sit for exciting events. You can reinforce the sit calmly by asking your dog to sit for all exciting events in his life. For example, ask your dog to sit before going outside to run, before walking through the front door, before having the leash put on, before being fed dinner, and even before being let off leash to play with other dogs.

Step Two: Self-Control Is Rewarding
Dogs with good self-control have had the opportunity to learn that restraint is a rewarding behavior. These exercises help dogs understand how rewarding it can be to control their own behavior!

• Leave it or off. The “leave it” or “off” is when you teach a dog to back away or look away from an interesting object, dog, or person. It is commonly used to train puppies to refrain from mouthing or playing with the wrong items, and to help overexcited dogs learn to disengage from other dogs. While this exercise is usually taught as a safety behavior – a way to teach a dog that leaving something alone is the best option – it is also a great way to encourage self-control. (See “Off Limits,” January 2002, for more about teaching the “off.”)

In the early stages of the off exercise, you may cue the behavior by saying “off” when you want your dog to leave something alone, but for self-control practice it is essential to start rewarding your dog for offering the off. You can actually set up an “off practice course” by laying out 5 to 10 interesting objects (toys, cones, socks, etc.). Walk through the course one or more times asking your dog to “off” when you pass each object and rewarding him generously each time he does.

After your dog walks through the course once or twice, he is likely to begin offering the “off” before you ask. When this happens, jackpot by rapid-fire feeding him treats and lavishing him with praise!

Watch for opportunities in your daily life – on walks, for example – when your dog notices something or someone and then looks to you. If you can catch these opportunities, you will help your dog learn that disengaging (which is a part of self-control) is a great choice.

• Wait for the ball toss. In the early stages of practicing this game, you will want to simply have your dog sit, and then toss the ball as a reward. As he learns the game, you can increase the time he waits before the ball is tossed.

Next, watch for opportunities to reward the offered sit – where your dog actually sits before you ask. Your dog will be learning that his act of offered self-control (sitting and waiting for the ball toss) is more rewarding than dancing around and demanding the throw. Of course, this means that you should limit the number of times that you throw the ball for him when he is demanding the throw with exuberant behavior, even when you are not actively “training” him!

Step Three: In The Face Of Arousal
When I asked friends with dogs what it meant for a dog to exhibit self-control, they all agreed that the most impressive examples of self-control were dogs who did what they were taught to do, in spite of their strong urges otherwise. One example was the Frisbee dog who waited patiently – even while quivering from head to toe with excitement – until she was cued to retrieve the plastic disc.

Hunting, herding, and even dog sports like agility encourage dogs to exhibit self-control while in the midst of excitement and arousal. Here is an at-home exercise that can also help dogs learn to turn on and off their excitement, and to listen to you in the face of arousal.

• Tug-sit-tug. Tug games can be great fun and great exercise. For dogs who get wound up when tugging, this game can be a powerful tool for teaching a dog to exhibit self-control even when excited. Start by making sure your dog knows how to “drop” the tug toy on cue. (For more on this, see “Tug: Play It By the Rules,” October 2004.) Start with a calmer version of tug (at a lower arousal level), and every 3 to 5 seconds stop pulling and ask your dog to drop the toy. At first, if you need to, you can reward your dog for dropping the toy with a treat.

Once your dog can easily and quickly drop the toy on cue, start requesting a sit after he drops it, so the sequence is tug-drop-sit. You can use the tug game as the reward. Begin increasing the length of time your dog sits before you start tugging.

When your dog is “good” at this game, start gradually increasing the intensity and excitement of the game by playing harder or longer (5 to 7 seconds, for example) before you ask for the drop and sit. Your dog may start to “offer” the sit after the drop; that’s great!

Asking Vs. Offering
Several times when describing the above exercises, I recommended rewarding your dog for “offering” a behavior before you ask. When you ask or cue your dog to do a specific behavior, and your dog responds, he is listening to you or under your control. Sometimes just being able to follow direction does show a degree of self-control, but when a dog offers an appropriate behavior, especially a behavior that shows restraint or calmness, he is definitely exhibiting self-control. When you selectively reward self-control oriented behaviors in daily life, you have provided the opportunity for your dog to experiment with behavior and learn that calm, controlled behavior is the best choice. Let your dog know that you notice and appreciate his good choices!

Keep It Positive

When I am helping people help their dogs develop self-control, invariably the question comes up: Wouldn’t he learn it faster if we “corrected” his impulsive behavior? Aside from the obvious that training with positive methods is kinder, I also believe that self-control is stronger when it is learned through reinforcement, rather than punishment.

Possibly the best example is the herding dog who exhibits amazing self-control around sheep. The dog learns that waiting patiently earns him the “reward” of working those sheep. Without the reinforcement of getting to move the sheep, the same dog might have a tougher time learning restraint in the face of incredibly strong drives.

Also, attempts to “correct” behavior may accidentally reinforce it. For example, if your dog jumps on you as a way to gain your attention and you scold him, he has just been rewarded for jumping! Scolding is a form of attention. In contrast, if you calmly disengage (showing self-control on your part!), you ensure the out-of-control behavior is not inadvertently rewarded. You also send a clear message that being out of control is not going to earn attention.

What can you do if you have a dog who regularly blows it in terms of self-control? First, identify and respect what your dog can and cannot handle! Then get busy and start training self-control behaviors. Make it clear to your dog that self-control oriented behaviors – like calmness in the face of distractions, restraint around temptations, and listening when excited – are always the most rewarding choices.


Also With This Article
Click here to view “Help You Dog Learn Self Control”
Click here to view “How Can You Know What Your Dog is Feeling?”

-Mardi Richmond, MA, CPDT, is a writer and trainer living in Santa Cruz, California, with her partner and two wonderful dogs.