STOP WASTING TIME AND START UNDERSTANDING YOUR IMPULSIVE DOG
This article is the third in a series to help you understand your reactive dog. So far, we have looked at:
It may not seem important to understand the role of impulse control in your reactive dog, but without truly understanding the role it plays in reactive behaviour, you may find your training takes much, much longer. When a dog has issues around impulse control and they’re also reactive, it actually makes more sense to work on impulsivity first.
We often hear that fear is the cause of lunging and barking. It is true that fear plays arguably the most significant role in why dogs are reactive. However, you’re missing a trick if you aren’t also trying to understand the role that impulse control is playing too.
In this article, we will look at what impulsivity is, how it develops, and what we mean by impulse control.
What is impulsivity?
Believe it or not, there is no universally agreed definition of impulsivity in dogs.
There are a number of popular definitions about impulsivity from human psychology which can help us understand impulsivity in dogs.
One definition of impulsivity is: ‘behaviour with little or no psychological capacity to delay, a behaviour that is socially inappropriate or maladaptive and is quickly emitted without forethought.’ (Oas, 1985)
Learning to delay responses
What this definition tells us is that there is little time between something occuring in the environment and the dog responding. For instance, a car may appear and your dog may take very little time to consider what it is, going straight into lunging and barking. A person may appear on your walk and your dog may start barking the moment they spot them.
This delay is important for many reasons.
The first is that it gives individuals time to process and reflect. Many reactive dogs make poor assessment of threat. They read danger in every situation, even those that are not dangerous at all. The delay gives them time to reappraise the situation.
The second reason is that the delay gives trainers and guardians space to work. When there is a short delay between a dog appearing and your dog reacting, you have space to train new responses. Without that space, your timing has to be lightning fast.
The third is that many reactive dogs have some ability to delay, but a heightened state of emotion such as anxiety or predation can make responses much quicker, so these dogs tend to ‘trigger stack’ easily. For example, if a dog like chasing cats and they have just smelled that a cat is present, they may be much more impulsive when a person suddenly appears on the horizon.
Learning to delay and modulate responses is vital to reduce the intensity of behaviour. It’s also important as we teach our dogs not to respond instantly to strangers, unfamiliar dogs or objects that appear at a safe distance.
Choosing socially appropriate responses
Another important aspect of impulsivity is that it leads to socially inappropriate responses. By and large, social species have behaviours designed to facilitate living in groups. Violence is often ritualised and channelled. One function of sports matches in humans, for example, is the channelling and ritualisation of competition.
Social species have penalties for inappropriate responses, and we may argue that the whole process of social development is to learn what level of response is required in a given situation.
When we look at reactive dogs who struggle with impulsivity, we often see responses that are much more intense than the situation requires. Sometimes, the dog has learned that they need to perform such large behaviours simply to keep threat at a distance. Other times, we may often see that the response is disproportionate to the level of threat. It may be one reason why so many of us have heard the advice that our dogs need more socialisation.
It is important that restorative socialisation is carried out carefully and purposefully with reactive dogs. Many reactive dogs need to learn how to choose more socially appropriate behaviours that would have the same effect as barking and lunging. This is where we see impulsivity will become a huge obstacle for our dogs if they don’t know how to manage their behaviour.
If we expect them to choose more socially appropriate behaviour when they are not doing so right now, then it’s important to understand how well the dog can control their body and their actions so that they can choose different responses rather than barking and lunging.
Considering and evaluating consequences
Another aspect of impulsivity in dogs is also important. In 1975, Buss and Plomin described impulsivity in humans as: ‘a tendency to respond quickly to a given stimulus, without deliberation and evaluation of consequences.’ This definition is also relevant for dogs.
Although this definition also explores an inability to delay behaviour, it also explores how impulsive dogs do not heed consequences.
Some trainers may try to use punishment with reactive behaviour. In reality, if they are using punishment with dogs who are also impulsive, it may be that the dog is simply unable to pay attention to predictable punishments. It’s why many trainers have to escalate punishment far past levels that would be needed to suppress behaviour in other dogs.
An impulsive, reactive dog may simply be unable to consider the consequences of their behaviour.
This can be seen in two circumstances. The first is in reactive dogs who engage in fights with much bigger dogs. When a small chihuahua charges up to a large German shepherd, barking and air snapping, the chihuahua is not considering the potential consequences of engaging in ‘fight’ behaviours rather than ‘flight’ behaviours.
It can also be seen in situations where a guardian is attempting to control reactive behaviour through coercive devices such as prong collars, choke collars and shock collars.
For dogs who would jump out of a moving car if they saw another dog or a cat, these may be signs that the dog is struggling to control their impulses. Likewise, a dog who would jump from a fourth or fifth storey to confront a passer-by or another dog may also be struggling to consider the consequences.
If we want consequences like food, toys, praise or petting to matter, then we need to help the dog first learn how to control their impulses. If we don’t, the behaviour will always be more important to the dog than the things that may come after it.
What is impulse control?
Impulse control involves the voluntary control over emotional and behavioural responses. It may involve choosing behaviours that are more appropriate for the situation.
For reactive dogs, for example, that may involve choosing a growl rather than lunging or snapping. It may involve disengagement rather than confrontation.
Impulse control is a developmental process that is acquired through early experience and through social support. All dogs are born knowing how to bite, for example. Through early socialisation prior to twelve or thirteen weeks, they learn how to inhibit their bite. The same process occurs with many other behaviours too as they modified and refined as puppies develop.
From the onset of sexual maturity to the onset of social maturity, many dogs struggle to control their impulses. Thus, many puppies from 16 weeks to 7 months seem to be doing just great. When sexual maturity begins after this period, they may struggle to walk nicely on lead or to recall, for example. They may get into fights with other dogs or they may struggle to choose appropriate behaviour. Just like human teenagers, the flexible learning of the cortex struggles sometimes to voluntarily inhibit impulses.
Impulse control is the ability to delay. It is also the ability to behave in a socially appropriate way. Impulse control also involves the ability to adapt. We should also think of impulse control as the ability to plan and reflect. When you think of both canine and human infants and teenagers, you may have many examples of where cognitive processes struggle to inhibit emotionally driven behaviour.
How is impulse control acquired?
Impulse control is acquired through socialisation. This is why it’s important for young puppies to have experiences with a range of adult dogs and with humans before they reach 12 weeks of age. During this period, puppies are learning from other dogs and from humans about how to behave appropriately.
It is also acquired through a process known as co-regulation. Dogs, like humans, are social beings, and our family and peers help us regulate our emotions when we are struggling. Co-regulation involves including steps to help the dog learn to focus despite distraction, to reappraise situations, to respond to cues and prompts and to make socially appropriate choices.
Sadly, many guardians leave young dogs to make their own choices or provide a chaotic environment without clear rule structures, so that the young dog is never certain about which choices are appropriate. For instance, they may be punished for counter-surfing, yet be surrounded by times where humans have left unsupervised items in grasp.
Some guardians may also find structures to be coercive. They may prefer to leave the dog to develop without intervention, seeing traditional obedience as controlling. Unfortunately, impulse control is vital for many dogs and such a laissez-faire environment leaves dogs without the ability to regulate any of their behaviours. Other guardians set up environments where the dog cannot practise unwanted behaviours. This in itself is a supportive framework for many dogs, but a barren or sterile environment can mean a lot of containment and removal from challenge when unsupervised, meaning some puppies do not develop the skills to know what they are supposed to engage with and what they are supposed to leave.
Some dogs thrive in a chaotic environment without clear rule structures or obedience training. Other dogs thrive without ever having had much teaching from their guardians. However, for dogs who struggle to control their impulses, this can mean that they struggle to cope.
What can guardians do?
Firstly, guardians can recognise that there is a problem and understand that impulse control needs active teaching for many young dogs.
Teaching dogs to focus despite distraction is easy to do with games that help the dog focus on the guardian when asked. Training that requires the dog to understand their own body can also help. Proprioception exercises and gentle activities like Hoopers Agility help dogs learn that they can control their body.
Giving dogs space to reappraise novelty or potential threat is also important. Some dogs need time to assess the environment when they enter a new setting. Giving them time to do that can help, particularly when they are puppies or adolescents.
Sometimes, we may need to cue the dog to do specific things. For instance, helping dogs learn a U-turn instead of standing and barking can help them later make those choices themselves. We may also shape socially appropriate choices that the dog makes.
It is very easy to convince ourselves that dogs should just be able to do these things themselves instinctively but to do so is to neglect our own duties as their caregiver. Some dogs need more support to build impulse control than other dogs do, and we need to understand their needs.
Next week, we will explore frustration-related behaviours, which can cause enormous problems for some reactive dogs. Although this is linked to impulsivity, being able to tolerate frustration is not exactly the same. We will take a look at what frustration is and its role in barking and lunging in more detail.
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