Impulse Control

Impulse Control

An impulse is the involuntary firing of a neuron following a stimulus. In essence, the lack of impulse control equates to reactivity and hyper-reactivity when the trigger is considered a low stimulus. Impulsivity is normal as it is part of the survival processes. Since neurons do not fire harder when exposed to a stimulus, resilience is calculated based on the length to time the neuron fires. If the neuron keeps firing 30min after the stimulus has left, the animal has a low to super high resilience level.


It is possible to train a dog to control its impulses; however, one should keep in mind this process can be a long and strenuous process. The following steps should be considered as a general protocol because each dog will display different levels of reactivity. Once a dog has gone above its manageable threshold, or resilience level, it will no longer learn and progressively shut down. The training for moderate to tremendously low resilient dogs will have to take place in environments void of stimulus if their progress is to noticeably change.


  1. First, try to evaluate the cognitive source of the stimulus: visual, auditory, olfactory, or tactile. Once the source is established (there may be more than one), identify the resilience level.

  2. Cognitive impulse triggered: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, or a combination

  3. Test resilience: time the animal from exposure to the stimulus to the shaking behavior and subtract the shaking time from the length of exposure.

  4. Example 1: Dog (A) is exposed to dog (B) for 1 minute (60 sec). Dog (A) shakes 15 seconds after the dog leaves. 60 - 15 = 45 sec. => the dog has extremely high resilience.

  5. Example 2: A dog is exposed to a cat for 1 min and shakes 6h later. 360 – 1 = 359 min or 5:59h => the dog has a tremendously low resilience.

0-15 sec = Tremendous high resilience

15 to 60 sec = Extremely high resilience

2 to 5 min = High resilience

5 to 10 min = Moderate resilience

10 to 30 min = Low resilience

30 – 1h = Extremely low resilience

1h+ = Tremendous low resilience


  1. This exercise is based on a binary approach in which behavior is on or off. There are no treats involved in this process, only social cognitive and CC behavior. There will be rapid movement, so make sure the environment is void of obstacles the trainer or the dog could trip over.


NOTE: the same protocol can be used for human reactivity or idiopathic fears by substituting the word dog with human or inanimate object.


  1. Step 1 => Impulse control dog reactivity -- Dog (A) is approached by dog (B)

  2. Slowly approach the stimulus and stop as soon as the ear perk forward, creases on the forehead appear, and/or the dog freezes. Once the dog breaks contact (visually or physically) take 5 steps back. Approach the stimulus again until the dog displays ears forward, creases appear, and/or the dog freezes again. Wait until it breaks contact and take 5 steps back.

  3. Now slowly approach dog (B) if dog (A) displays any of the previous behaviors, stop and wait until it calms down or breaks contact. Repeat this process 5X. The distance between the dog and the stimulus should slowly decrease.

  4. The session stops once half the trigger distance is reached. Take a 5 min break and proceed to Step 2.


  1. Step 2 => Impulse control dog reactivity -- (A) approaches dog (B)

  2. Slowly approach the stimulus towards the dog and stops. Take 5 steps back if the dog reacts with its ears forward, forehead creases appear, and/or freezes.


NOTE: If this distance is visually too far, a pre-established hand signal might be needed so the handler can tell the approaching person to stop, and take 5 steps backwards. Wait until the dog calms down and signal to approach again. Do these exercises twice, then take a small 2 min break.

  1. Do the approach/retreat exercise until the stimulus is either ½ of the reaction distance or you have done the process 5X; whichever of the two come first. Make sure the session ends when the dog is not reacting.

  2. If the dog gets too excited, plan for a lesser stimulus by either being further, smaller, shorter, etc. Impulse control can progress very fast if the stimulus is appropriate in the learning phase.

  3. The diagram shown above works for this protocol, simply reverse the arrows where dog (A) approaches dog (B).

  4. Step 3 => Impulse control inanimate objects (stimulus = toys, food, leashes, etc.)

  5. Present the object (stimulus) from the distance where the dog reacts and stop. If the dog reacts in any way, move the object away proportionately to the motion the dog made. If the dog moved its head, move the object a few inches away. If the dog jumps, move the object at arm’s length away from the dog.

  6. Repeat this process until you can move the object as need, i.e., throw the toy without a reaction; attach the leash to the collar; give a treat without being bit; pet the dog without it jumping, etc.

  1. Move the stimulus forward with the intention of presenting the object to the dog in position B; the target behavior is B without the dog reacting. If the dog moves its head, bring the ball to position A. If the dog jumps, remove the object to position F, which is the highest position far from the dog. If the dog moves his head and body, move the object towards D or E. This process is based on positive reinforcement (R+) and negative punishment (P-).

  2. Repeat this as many times as possible until you can reach the dog’s head or mouth area without a reaction. This process will get easier with time, but it is fundamental the trainer remains consistent, if not the behavior will persist and increase in complexity.


NOTE: Reactivity is not synonymous with aggression or hyperactivity. Impulses can be countered with a high level of consistency because the trainer is working towards the extinction of conditioned emotional response (CERs). If there is any indication of aggression towards humans or dogs, the dog should be handed over to the senior trainer to be evaluated. The owner should be instructed to collaborate in order to improve desirable behavior.


  1. Step 4 => Impulse control crates, gates and other shifting doorways

  2. The session starts when the dog is behind a gate enclosure. Approach the gate and retreat if the dog displays any reaction or agitation towards the entranceway. It is a very dynamic process and should yield results within a few minutes.

  3. This R+ and P- process should be implemented as a management strategy and periodically tested to assess the extinction outcome. Conduct a behavior test every week by evaluating on /10 the outcome of an approach towards the gate. Does the dog react, if so, how? The following score sheet serves as a general indication of behavior. Please keep in mind each dog acts differently in the same situation; consequently, reassess the dog two times within an interval of one to two days.


Reacts: hyper-reactive, vocalizes, snarls, postures = 1

Reacts: intensely frantic, vocalizes, postures = 2

Reacts: agitated, vocalizes = 3

Reacts: moderately agitated, vocalizes = 4

Reacts: restless, vocalizes = 5

Reacts: excited, cries/whimpers = 6

Reacts: inquisitive whines = 7

Reacts: interest, quiet = 8

Reacts: composed, disengaged = 9

Reacts: hypo-reactive, retreats = 10


A response 10/10 is the desired outcome, but highly unlikely to occur since controlling one hundred percent of the environment is impossible. When you obtain different test result, assess the environment in which undesirable behaviors occur and spend some extra time working on those distractions. A DRL or DRI can be used, and if the trainers are talented, a DRO can be tried. In any case, documentation must accompany the process and the behavior to tract progress. Reactivity is often confused with hyper-active behaviors; consequently, dogs are mislabelled and treated unfairly which increases frustration and responses. A proper evaluation of the source of behavior is fundamental in training new responses.






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Objective: This behavior is equivalent to relax on command and is an impulse control exercise Cue: Settle.

The word relax could be used, but since we say relax often between people, it can become a competing and/or confusing cue.

When dog A spontaneously stops moving, R+ O < jackpot.

Repeat as often as possible in a given time-frame, say 15 minutes. R+

The objective is to start to teach the dog that you will R+ stillness.

Mark 3 behaviors with jackpots then > to 1 or 2 treats at a time.

When the behavior starts to occur frequently, add time.

Do NOT name the behavior while shaping.

Increase the stillness one Mississippi at a time before R+.

R+ O < jackpot if the dog offers a longer time.

R+ only three consecutive behaviors O jackpot then > rewards.

R+ motionless behavior regardless if the dog is standing, sitting, or laying down.

Do NOT name the behavior at this time.

Repeat R+ 15X in the same position, i.e., standing.

Now withhold R+ for 1 min to see if the dog will offer another behavior such as sit or laydown. You will need to be clear on your approximations in order to shape this behavior efficiently.

Be prepared to R+ a new behavior O < jackpot.

If no new behavior, R+ another 15X

Withhold R+ and wait 1 min.

If the dog offers a new behavior, R+ O < jackpot.

If no new behavior R+ 15X the stand motionless.

Withhold R+ and wait.

Repeat these steps until the dog sits or lays down.

R+ new behavior 15X O > jackpot.

Repeat step 5 and 6 until you reach your desired behavior.

Once you have reached a laydown settle behavior, now is the time to name it.

Every time you move around in the enclosure and stop, the dog should come near you, stop and laydown motionless for 1 min. Name behavior ½ sec before R+

Repeat 15X making sure you move around the enclosure.

Say settle, R+ and repeat

Test the behavior.

Take 10 treats

Move 5’ in one direction and say settle.

The dog has 15 sec to come towards you, laydown and settle.

R+ if behavior is successful.

Set the treat aside if it fails.

Repeat 9X moving 5’ away each time.

If the dog passes the test (0 treats left), the behavior can be put into maintenance

If the dog fails the test (1+ treats remain) go back to the naming phase in step 9.

Test the behavior the following day to assess memory.

Distance and Distractions will be added gradually in order to perfect this behavior. Do not worry about form. The dog is learning the value of controlling his impulses by being motionless, not by sitting or lying down behaviors.


Impulse Control and Reinforcing Calm, Relaxed Behaviors

This is an impulse control exercise and rewards the dog for being relaxed.

When the dog spontaneously stops moving, mark and reward.

Repeat as often as possible in a given time-frame, say 15 minutes.

The objective is to start to teach the dog that you will reward stillness and a relaxed state of mind.

Mix up the reward sizes, randomly use a very valuable reward, but not too often.

When the behavior starts to occur frequently, add time.

Do NOT name the behavior at this stage, which is called shaping.

Increase the stillness one Mississippi at a time before rewarding.

Reward if the dog offers a longer time.

Reward only three consecutive behaviors with a huge reward.

Reward motionless behavior regardless if the dog is standing, sitting, or laying down.

Do NOT name the behavior at this time.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Now withhold the reward for 1 min to see if the dog will offer another behavior such as sit or laydown.

Be prepared to reward a new behavior if it’s a good behavior, but only with praise or a pet. Withhold high value rewards.

If no new behavior, reward and repeat.

Repeat these steps until the dog sits or lays down and is visibly relaxed (e.g. not staring at you for the treat).

Distance and Distractions will be added gradually in order to perfect this behavior. Do not worry about form. The dog is learning the value of controlling his impulses by being motionless, not by sitting or lying down behaviors.