The Single Best Thing Your Dog Can Learn

Many of our clients dream of a Lassie…


…but instead their dog resembles Marley from Marley and Me.


What is the difference between these two dogs?

(Besides the obvious answers of “breed”, “age”, and “degree of fictionality”)

Self Control.

90% of the issues that we are called in to help with actually stem from a basic inability to control impulses.

What sorts of impulses do dogs have?

tennis ball pug

  • to bark
  • to pull
  • to snap
  • to growl
  • to hide
  • to chew
  • to dig
  • to sniff
  • to jump
  • to run
  • to play
  • to eat

Any of that sound familiar?

Most of those impulses conflict with what WE want them to do:

desk dog

  • to sit
  • to stay
  • to go lie down
  • to be quiet
  • to wait patiently
  • to walk calmly
  • to ignore distractions
  • to focus on us
  • to not jump up
  • to not destroy things
  • to not drive us insane

So, why can’t your dog do it?

Our clients have tried everything, from rolling the dog on its back to dangling it by its neck on a choke collar.

But the dogs still can’t control themselves.! They never learned how.

Think about your average toddler:

This is your dog's emotional control level

This is your dog’s emotional control level

Impulsive. Demanding. Prone to outburst of emotion.

Sound like a certain furry friend you know?

As we grow, we learn to tolerate disappointment, to control our impulses.

A basic test of self control in small children is the famous “marshmallow test”.

You put a marshmallow in front of the child, and tell him or her that if the marshmallow is still there when you come back into the room, he/she can have TWO marshmallows!

A lot of preschoolers fail this test. But you wouldn’t, would you?

That’s because you’ve learned self control.

…Or maybe you just don’t like marshmallows.

The point is, self control needs to be learned through time and experience, and most dogs we meet have never learned it.

So, how do you teach it?

The best way to teach your dog self control is to demand it in as many aspects of your dog’s daily life as possible. Require your dog to hold him/her self back, to wait, to be calm, before getting what he or she wants.

Sample Exercises

Waiting to be let out of the crate

Require your dog to wait in his or her crate as you open the door in the morning. If she tries to escape, slam the crate door in her face and tell her to wait again. Then slowly open the door again. When the dog finally waits as you open the door, tell her it is okay to go through and praise her when she comes out.

Repeat this every day until she can wait with the crate door open for twenty minutes while you get dressed, dry your hair, and finally tell her she is free to come out.

puppy in crate

Waiting for meals

When you go to feed your dog, require the dog to do a sit or down stay. If he gets up as you lower the bowl to the ground, stand back up, hold the bowl out of reach, and tell the dog “no!” or “too bad!”

Put him back in the stay and try again. Repeat this until you can get the bowl to the ground without the dog bouncing up. Then tell the dog it is okay to get up and eat.

Practice this at every meal until you can put down the dog’s breakfast in the morning, then spend ten minutes putting on your shoes, helping your children don their coats, and finally opening the door to go to work.

For bonus points, make the dog continue the stay while you close the door, then open it again and finally release the dog.

Ignoring Distractions

Start with a treat. Explain to your dog that this treat is dead to her. She will NEVER get this treat. Tell her to leave it, and hold it out to her. If she goes for it, yank your hand away and tell her “no!’ or “too bad!” and then try again. When the dog finally looks away (maybe to look beseechingly into your eyes) praise her and give her a treat from your other hand.

Once your dog gets that when she breaks focus on the forbidden treat she gets  rewarded, try making the distraction more tempting. Put it on the floor near her. Put it on her paw. Change distractions – make it a squeaky toy, or another dog.

Keep upping the ante.


Stay and Fetch

If your dog loves to play ball, this is a great chance to practice self control. Tell your dog to sit, and stay. Hold the leash in your hand, and the ball and the other. Then pretend to throw the ball. Your dog may get up. If so, use the leash to stop him before he takes off, and get him to sit and stay again. Pretend to throw the ball again. Do this until your dog is no longer fooled and holds still. Then give him his release command and THEN throw the ball.

Do this until no amount of dancing around and fake throws will make your dog break until you give the word.

For bonus points, hold tight to your dog’s leash and ACTUALLY throw the ball. Physically stop him when he tries to get up and make him hold a stay for a bit before you actually let him go get the ball.

Practice this until your dog can hold a stay even as you throw a ball right over his head.

On Your Bed

Get you dog used to staying out of the way while practicing self control at the same time!  Order your dog onto his dog bed or a matt, and continually reward him with treats while he is there. If he tries to get up, or if a paw sneaks off the bed and onto the floor, tell him “no!” or “too bad!” and bully him back onto the bed. Go back to rewarding. When he has done well, tell him he is free to go and stop the game.

Practice this until your dog can stay there while you eat dinner in the evening, and then until your dog can stay there while you greet guests at the door!

Enjoy The Magic

None of these things may seem to have anything to do with your dog’s behaviour problem. Maybe she is afraid of other dogs, or loves them a little too much. Maybe he is obsessed with balls and will drag you off your feet when walking past the local school during recess. Maybe she barks constantly. Maybe he hates men.

But whether they are acting out of fear, excitement, joy, or retributive fury, you can bet your dog is following his or her impulses.

Photo credit JMacPherson

Photo credit JMacPherson

When you exercise your dog’s capacity for self control, you build a kind of muscle that helps your dog keep him or herself calm. Many of our clients report an improvement in seemingly unrelated behaviour problems after a few weeks of Self Control Boot Camp.

It’s not a panacea. It doesn’t fix EVERYTHING. But it helps.

Because before we can teach your dog what you want him to do instead, he has to be able to control himself enough to be able to do it.

Self Control is always the first step.