Teaching Self-Control

By Sally Bradbury

Self-control is defined as the ability to manage emotions, impulses, and behaviour, and to resist temptation. It is an inhibitory control, which is part of a set of cognitive skills known as executive function. This is necessary to be able follow directions, maintain focus, regulate emotions, and attain goals.

Using Food

Have a treat that your dog wants in a closed hand. Allow him to sniff your hand. He may lick or nibble. If you are in danger of losing your hand, then start this exercise with a toy. When he backs off, however briefly, open your hand and give him the treat. Repeat until he understands to wait to be given the treat. Use a release word such as ‘take it’ or ‘yes’.

Don’t say ‘wait’, or anything at all; particularly avoid saying ‘no’ or ‘ah ah’. That isn’t self-control.

Next step, show him a treat in an open hand and use the release cue for him to take it. Increase the time between showing the hand and giving the release word. If he moves to take it before the release, close your hand.

Variations on this include food on the floor, food on paws (if he isn’t sensitive about feet being touched), food dropped, food thrown, and not being released to get the food, but being called away for a better treat. Be sure to practise in different locations.

Using a Toy

You need your dog to be focussed on the toy.

Decide on your release word. Let’s use ‘yes’. Roll the toy away and say ‘yes’ at the same time. Repeat several times.

Next, with a finger in his collar or holding his harness, roll the toy away. Wait for the slightest backward movement or pause from him while looking at the toy. Say ‘yes’ and let him go to the toy. Repeat this, increasing the time between pause and release by a fraction of a second each time.

Aim for a two to five second pause without needing to hold his harness or collar. No need to ask for a wait. The dog is choosing to wait for the release, otherwise it isn’t self-control.

Now gradually add variations one at a time.

Throw the toy, place the toy, roll the toy away, use different toys.

Crouch down next to him, stand next to him, change sides, move away after throwing the toy, move away before throwing the toy (for this last one, you may add the wait cue).

Finally, vary the locations.

Doors and Gates

Teach your dog a default wait at doors and gates, so that he waits before
being released, without being asked.

Choose a door that the dog wants to go through and that opens away from you for the initial training. Open the door a crack, say nothing. If he moves forward, close the door. Repeat until he doesn’t move, then open the door wide as you give a release cue.

Next session, open the door slightly wider and, as before, open and close it until he pauses. Open it half an inch more until he waits or pauses, then open the door, release him, and allow him through the door.

Continue in this fashion until he waits in front of a wide-open door for the cue to go through.

If you consistently do this at certain doors and gates each day, then your dog(s) will wait to go through until released without being asked. If you are not consistent, then you will need to introduce the wait cue so that your dog knows when they have to wait and when they don’t. I would recommend making this a default behaviour at external doors.