Too hot to handle: impulsive choices and our dogs

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Too hot to handle: impulsive choices and our dogs

December 12, 2023 Uncategorised 0

When our dogs bark and lunge at other dogs or at people passing by, it can be very confusing. They may also struggle with other animals or vehicles, wanting to chase them and even grab them. It’s confusing because the narrative we have often been led to believe is that our dogs are fearful or anxious.

Fear and anxiety may well underpin some of the behaviour we see, but not always. It’s also important to understand how frustration affects our dog’s response. Some people see frustration as a subset of impulse control. Impulsivity in dogs is not always easy to understand. This is especially true when it comes to barking and lunging at things they see on walks.

How dogs struggle with impulse control

It’s made even more confusing because it’s easy to think of impulsivity as a single thing. In fact, dogs who struggle with impulse control may struggle in many different ways.

Some struggle when rewards are highly motivating to them and they are very sensitive to these rewards. They may also be highly motivated and enjoy performing particular behaviours like chasing or grabbing.

Other dogs struggle with impulse control over perceived punishment. I’m sure we all know tales of dogs who struggled to recover over a tiny reprimand. Very infrequently, some dogs may become aggressive if we delay delivery of expected rewards or activities.

There are also dogs who struggle with the attentional processes and with cognitive control. They can become hyperfixated on an activity or performing it, unable to put an end to things when they become unproductive. Others struggle to pay attention to anything in the environment for any specific length of time, giving up easily.

Some of these skills have been highly valuable to us over the ages. A highly responsive and sensitive dog is a useful companion. We may have deliberately or accidentally selected dogs who were keen to start or could focus for a long time on a task, and ended up selecting for occasionally poor impulse control.

But there are other ways in which dogs may struggle with impulse control too.

Marshmallows, pretzels and delay

In the 1960s, young psychologist Walter Mischel wondered why his daughters seemed to struggle with some aspects of self-control. Having a group of preschoolers to work with at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery school gave him some candidates in which he could explore developmental aspects of self-control.

He gave them a tough challenge: take one reward now or wait for a short period of time and have two later. The experimenters first built up a trusting relationship with the young children. They needed the children could trust they would pay up later. Then they offered the children a meaningful reward. For some, they wanted little mints. Others preferred cookies or mini pretzels. His work has become synonymous with marshmallows however.

They learned a lot from this experiment. Mainly, they learned that self-control was a developmental skill. At five, the children had much better skills than they had at four. They also learned that children used several mechanisms to help with the frustration of waiting.

This type of experiment became known as the Sooner, Smaller Reward vs the Larger, Later Reward. There has been a good deal of research on a parallel phenomenon known as delay discounting, where rewards get less valuable over time.

The main lightbulb moment for the researchers actually came when they revisited the children as adults. Those who had poor self-control when younger had a whole raft of physiological, emotional, cognitive and social problems as adults.

It turned out that being able to inhibit our behaviour for bigger rewards later was really important.

Dogs and It’s Yer Choice

Some dogs really struggle with inhibiting their behaviour when it comes to rewards. This very broad area usually causes a lot of frustration for dogs. Where frustration overlaps with impulsivity is in this niche area of marshmallows and pretzels. But surely that doesn’t also apply to dogs?

If you’re a fan of Training Queen Susan Garrett, then you may already be familiar with her ‘It’s Yer Choice’ game. In it, dogs learn to inhibit their response in return for a better reward later. It is exactly the same set-up as Walter Mischel’s set-up with children.

Without really understanding the connection, I could see that a number of the dogs I worked with on barking and lunging really struggled NOT TO do things. They especially struggled when things were really rewarding. If chasing cars or grabbing cats was highly rewarding, they became hugely frustrated if unable to do it.

Some trainers who talk about frustration remind us that it is imperative we meet a dog’s needs. However, they do not take into account that some needs are dangerous to the dog or to others. Chasing and grabbing motorcyclists or cars has led to more broken legs and pelvises than I care to recall. Killing other animals is definitely not a ‘need’ our dogs should exercise.

Needs and outlets

The first problem is in viewing these behaviours as the result of a ‘need’. Needs are physiological, psychological or social. Not having those needs met, like eating or drinking, or for a puppy to have the presence of other animals or their mother, can cause enormous distress. If physiological needs are not met, dogs will die. Not having social needs met will probably not kill a dog, but it can be very distressing.

To ask ourselves whether chasing and grabbing are needs, we simply need to ask if it’s problem behaviours are dependent on a trigger such as the odour of prey species or the sight or sound of cars. If the dog functions normally without such triggers around, then it is not a need. It is simply a response to a stimulus.

The problem comes when these are seen as ‘needs’ which require an ‘outlet’. If problem behaviours do not exist beyond the trigger, then we may be able to teach the dog some self-control using proxy outlets such as toys. However, frustrated dogs cannot always cope with this.

Why we have to deal with frustration first

When we have dogs who struggle with things on walks, ruling out frustration is vital. Meeting the dog’s needs is important too, but not if the dog is already highly aroused and likely to struggle. There is no better recipe for a dog fight than two dogs who don’t know each other, where one is highly aroused by the other’s presence and desperate to play at any cost.

This is also true for dogs who chase and grab.

For instance, when I started working with Lidy, I used a lot of tug. We were in a small shelter space and tugs and puller toys were really our only option. However, because Lidy was very sensitive to the value of these items, she would sometimes take them and guard them. It became difficult to get them back from her. Luckily, she did not destroy them, but I have had clients whose dogs would grab items and run away. They would then guard the items and destroy them, sometimes even ingesting them.

If I managed to keep hold of the items, she would sometimes grab and snatch them. If I put them out of reach, she would bite me in frustration. Although she is a fairly ‘extreme’ case, I certainly know many dogs who have done the same.

Using toys and friends to build self-control skills is important. However, if we do it with dogs who do not have many skills of self-control, then it is likely to cause us problems. Even simple training problems like ‘It’s Yer Choice’, which really benefit frustrated dogs, are impossible with dogs who have poor impulse control.

The fallout when self-control fails

There is sometimes mild fallout when self-control related to choices is concerned. At other times, that fallout can be much more noticeable.

The first consequences are for the dog. It is tough to be surrounded by things that you want but cannot get to or access, and this may cause negative emotional states for our dog. Just because a dog is successfully able to inhibit some of their behaviour does not mean we should wilfully keep putting them in situations where they are surrounded by temptation. Expecting them to tolerate this is not fair or kind.

When dogs are unable to inhibit their frustration or impulses, we are often the first to know about it. It can lead us to choosing punishment or reprimands in the hopes that our dog learns to suppress, stop or reduce their behaviour. Their frustrations lead to our frustrations.

Mild fallout for us might be when our dog barks at us or jumps up. Perhaps they even try to grab things off us. We may tell ourselves that they’re “high drive” dogs and then we can end up over-exercising them. We may also not think of the impact on their joints of repetitive behaviour including circling, spinning and chasing.

When our dogs don’t have good impulse and body control, they can also pick up injuries because they are unable to hold themselves back. Because of the adrenaline of arousal, this can also cause them to ignore their body’s own warning signs.

Perhaps we hold the tug toy just out of reach so they don’t grab it and our dogs repeatedly push themselves to jump higher and higher.

Severe fallout of frustrated choices

When we are asked to do a low frequency behaviour like wait in order to access a behaviour that is highly rewarding, it can be a huge demand on dogs who don’t have good impulse control.

It can also be a real struggle for dogs who are completely prevented from doing things they’d rather do. With a few tragic exceptions, the worst bites I’ve ever seen have been fuelled by frustration rather than aggression per se. Often, these are dogs who either got out of control grabbing a toy or they redirected onto their guardian when they were unable to do something like chase a cat or car.

It may seem trivial when a dog starts biting or pulling the lead in frustration, but I’ve known dogs choke other dogs on slip leads when they grabbed their lead to redirect their frustration.

Injury to themselves, injury to other animals and injury to us can be potential consequences for dogs who can’t tolerate delay well.

Where this is compounded with other aspects of impulse control such as extreme sensitivity to reward or punishment, we have a recipe for tragedy in the making.

Training dogs who are impulsive and frustrated

It can be very challenging to work with dogs who cannot handle frustration. It is rarely simply a case of meeting their needs as quickly as possible. This doesn’t help the dog cope with frustration. It simply limits their exposure to it. Where this is coupled with a failure to inhibit their behaviour, it can be challenging to work with them.

This is especially true for dogs who are insensitive to consequences – the kind of risk-taking dogs who’d jump out of a moving vehicle or from a second-storey window having done it before and injured themselves. It’s also true of dogs who are B of the Bang dogs – quick off the marks and quick to move to the most intense of behavioural responses.

It’s also important to build up frustration tolerance before trying to add a little impulse control with high-intensity games. If our dogs cannot tolerate waiting for their rewards, then they will struggle immensely with many aspects of training.

One approach that I have found that makes a huge difference is in teaching proprioception and body control. Alongside teaching our dog how to settle and relax proactively, rather than simply ‘expecting’ it or using it as a punishment, we can make a real difference. Frustrated and impulsive dogs require our technical prowess and skilful training. Many excellent rewards-based trainers use training perfectly to build up both frustration tolerance and impulse control. It’s not a surprise that many of these trainers are at the top of their game and win many awards or are esteemed in the training industry.

How to make a difference

Sometimes, if we lack the technical skills and we have a dog who not only tolerates frustration poorly but tends to ‘big’ behaviours very quickly, it can be helpful to enlist the help of an expert.

This does not mean obedience drills and repetitive clicker training. It simply means they can give us a kickstart. It is worthwhile paying for an individual session if you are all fingers and thumbs as far as timing is concerned.

It’s also important that we don’t trivialise these dogs’ behaviour. Frustration in combination with poor impulse control hugely impacted the kind of relationships the children went on to have in adult life in Walter Mischel’s study. It’s not just a problem for the dog. It can be a huge problem for the other individuals around them too.

And it’s important to understand that they may not yet have the skills to cope with some popular programmes to help chasing. Exposure to other animals or to cars when they haven’t the skills to tolerate not being able to chase or bite them can be hugely frustrating.

In conclusion

It’s hard to accept sometimes that there are things in life we would not permit our dogs to do, like chasing balls off cliffs or jumping out of third-floor windows, diving out of doors onto busy roads or chasing other animals.

Many dogs have to learn to live without following their every impulse, and this is a normal part of successful living.

Our dogs will need to learn how to leave things alone and not be too frustrated by that. They will also need to learn how to wait for delayed rewards – even if that delay is only seconds.

When we tackle frustration and impulse control, we often find that ‘reactivity’ resolves itself on the whole. We may need to do a bit of support, but this should be much easier once we’ve addressed them.

If you are interested in more, you may find these webinars helpful. One focuses on skills, very much thinking about the kind of dogs who struggle with both frustration and impulsivity as well as reactive barking and lunging on walks. The second focuses on helping dogs make decisions without drama.

You can also sign up for the Lighten Up Understanding Canine Frustration 4-hour self-paced webinar here.