9 Games to Teach Your Dog Impulse Control

Barking. Digging. Whining. Pulling on the leash. Jumping on strangers. Stealing food. Chasing squirrels. Humping the pillows.

Dogs with poor impulse control get into a lot of trouble – but don’t just label your dog as “impulsive” and give up (ready why here).

Using games to teach your dog impulse control is much more than yanking them away from that rotting pigeon on the trail or kneeing them in the chest when they jump.

1. Smart X50

Reward your dog for all of the tiny cute or useful things he does throughout the dayyou’ll see your dog behaving better all the time in hopes of payment!
  1. Pick a few behaviors that you think are cute or useful from your dog. Your list might include lying at your feet, sitting up on hind legs, spinning in a circle, and going to lie on his bed. It’s totally up to you!
  2. Count out 20-50 treats per day and put them somewhere easy to grab (the dinner table is a popular choice)
  3. Whenever you see your dog doing one of those cute or useful, say “yes!” Then walk to grab a treat and reward your dog.
  4. Your day is done when the treats are gone.

2. It’s Yer Choice

This exercise is an introduction to the concept of “leave it.” Teach your dog to pause and look to you for guidance when they really, really want something!
  1. Put some tasty treats in your hand and place your hand near your dog.
  2. Keep your hand closed as your dog sniffs, nibbles, or paws at your hand.
  3. Open your hand when your dog sits back to wait.
  4. Close your hand if your dog immediately dives back in for the goodies.
  5. When she stays away for a second or two, place 1 treat on the ground.
  6. Gradually build up time between opening your hand and delivering the treat.

3. Relax On Your Mat

Teach your dog to lie calmly on a mat, no matter what is going on around her. Great for outings and impressing dinner guests!

Pro tip – the mat should ONLY be on the ground when you’re playing the game.

  1. Pick out a novel blanket, towel, or mat. This should not be a bed.
  2. Place the mat on the ground in front of your dog.
  3. Click and treat for any interest in the mat – looking at it, moving towards it, sniffing, paws on it. Keep treating your dog if she stays on the mat.
  4. Gradually narrow your criteria. Work towards only rewarding your dog for lying down. It’s ok to just cut to the chase and cue your dog to lie down, if you’d like.
  5. Use Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol as a way to solidify mat training (coming up next!)
  6. Once you’re doing well, try new places and distractions!

4. U-Turns

Teach your dog to turn and walk away from exciting or scary things on walks.

This builds focus and helps dogs disengage from exciting things during walks. It is NOT a formal heel!

  1. Start out in a quiet hallway with your dog on leash. Walk for a few steps, then pivot and go the opposite way. Click and treat when your dog starts to follow you in the new direction.
  2. Add a cue when your dog is reliably turning with you quickly. I use “this way!”
  3. Up the ante by increasing distractions. Try in your backyard, then your daily walks.
  4. Eventually start doing this when there’s actually a distraction dead ahead.

5. Sophia Yin’s Leave It

Teach your dog to check in with you when he wants something on leash.

This builds focus and helps dogs disengage from exciting things during walks. Use it in conjunction with #1 for best results.

  1. Have your dog on leash. Toss a treat out of his reach.
  2. Wait for your dog to stop pulling and straining towards the treat.
  3. When he does, give him a treat for looking at you.
  4. Only then can you walk towards the treat. Be sure to keep a loose leash while you do so.

6. Red Light, Green Light

Reduce leash pulling without even using treats (though treats speed up the process)

This teaches dogs that when they pull, they don’t get to move forward. Use with U-turns for super-stubborn pullers. Be prepared for very slow progress at first! The goal is to teach your dog that pulling doesn’t work. This can take a while.

  1. Have your dog on leash. I like to use a dog’s flat buckle collar for this exercise. Do your normal walks on a harness in the meantime.
  2. Start walking forward. When your dog his the end of his leash and pulls, stop.
  3. Wait for a “J” to appear in your leash. Mark with a word (“good” or “yes” often works).
  4. Start walking again.
  5. Repeat.

This can take a long time and is frustrating – but it works! Changing directions and implementing U-turns can speed the process. Remember to use different collars to distinguish training from real walks, or you’ll never get a real walk in while working on RL/GL!

7. Sleepy on Cue

Teach your dog to place his head on his paws and blink his eyes on cue

It’s hard to be amped-up and ridiculous when your head is on the ground and you’re blinking.

  1. Familiarize yourself with clicker training and shaping.
  2. Sit in a boring space with your dog. And wait.
  3. Click and treat for any approximation of a dog with his head on his paws. This could be lying down, lowering his head, etc.
  4. When your dog is readily offering to put his head on the floor or his paws, you’re ready. Start to click every time he blinks.
  5. Put this on cue by saying a word like “sleepy” between treats.

This is a tricky one. If you’re not a savvy trainer yet, stick to the other options here.

8. Exchange Games

A great intro to drop it! Head-off resource guarding and reduce unwanted stealing and tug games.

Not strictly speaking impulse control, this teaches your dog to trade whatever he’s got for something you’ve got.

  1. Give your dog something he likes. Try a stuffed Kong, chew toy, tug toy, pig’s ear, or ball.
  2. Approach your dog and click when he looks at you. Toss some awesome treats near him. He should drop it now! (If he doesn’t, you need better treats and a less exciting toy).
  3. Pick up the object he had as he eats the new goodies.
  4. Give him the object back.
  5. Repeat. The goal is that he gets excited for new goodies when you approach him.
  6. Repeat until your dog drops his toy when you come near. Now start offering your hand and saying “drop it.” You just added in a cue!

8. Ready, Set, Go!

Teach the hyper dog to amp up and cool down quickly.

This works best for dogs that love to play and run!

  1. Amp up your dog with whatever you normally do to get him riled up.
  2. Say, “Ready, set, GO!” Run away from your dog. Let him chase you for 5 strides or so.
  3. Say, “Ready, set, DOWN!” (or sit). Then stop and become super-duper boring until he complies.
  4. Give your dog a bunch of treats when he complies.
  5. Repeat. You can eventually quit with the treats. Running again with you is a big reward for many dogs!

The goal is to teach your dog to respond to cues from you even when he’s really excited. This might mean you get jumped on at first!

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