Why impulse control is important for reactive dog training
Ruling out frustration and impulsivity when working with dogs who bark and lunge is vital.
Many dogs in the Western world have been selected for responsiveness and trainability. When we selected dogs to help us hunt, protect flocks or protect our property, we certainly wouldn’t have wanted dogs who were slow off the mark.
A dog who says, ‘well, I might in a minute!’ is not a particularly helpful dog to have around if wolves are eyeing up your sheep hungrily. Herding dogs who come trotting back after five minutes because they are not motivated would not have been helpful companions either.
So quick responses are often a useful pre-requisite in a working dog.
Some of our working dogs also need to be trainable, depending on us to step up and fill the gaps where impulse control is concerned. This may be less relevant for some dogs than others. A terrier is bred for independent utility. Going down dirty holes to find rodents doesn’t require assistance from a human.
Other dogs are bred to work alongside us. They are often more likely to notice and respond to our voices and our gestures. Some dogs have a remarkable talent for picking up on human verbal cues and gestures. Researchers think that some dogs may even be able to ‘fast map’ words, remembering them after only one pairing with a meaningful object.
The impact of responsiveness and trainability
Dogs who have been bred for both responsiveness and trainability are remarkably quick thinkers who work well along humans. It’s no surprise that they are fulfilling roles in helping humans in many complex situations.
They assist us in collecting or moving livestock. They support us in living, acting as a helper in many complex ways. Some act as detection dogs, where we use their noses in a variety of situations from Avalanche Search & Rescue through to sniffing out money and drugs for the police & customs agents. Some act in conservation, not only tracking rare species but protecting them from poachers too.
This requires dogs who are not only quick thinking and good at problem solving, but also have the ability to hear humans through environmental distractions. It is not a surprise that many shepherd dogs and gundogs end up working in airports or alongside the police.
Impulse control is a useful thing for animals to have, particularly predators. Knowing when to move and when to stay is a key component to this.
Unfortunately, breeding for responsiveness and trainability has never been an exact science. As Dr Karen Overall said in 2013, ‘it is quite possible that in breeding for quickly responsive dogs we overshot and selected for a pathology in many breeds in which hyper-reactivity seems very common.’1
She goes on to say that there is little research on this, and it is long past the time when we should have been collecting information or considering how easily such dogs will fit into the life of a pet dog.
Hyper-reactivity & responsiveness
Dr Overall defines hyper-reactivity clearly in her Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats.
The first criteria is that dogs who are very quickly responsive are exactly that: responsive. They respond to stimuli in the environment more quickly than others might. For example, it was not unusual for my dogs Heston and Flika to notice a car at the same moment. However, Heston did not respond to it. In fact, unless a car did something extraordinary like honk their horn or drive incredibly fast past us, he would continue his own business.
One experimental trial in the 1936 with shepherd dogs showed that they could see moving items over 900m without issue2. A responsive dog is not a dog who would simply notice a moving trigger at that distance. They would respond to it. For Flika, that usually involved trying to chase the car or cyclist that had caught her eye.
It is more than that, however. It is a more extreme behaviour in terms of several measures. That can include the intensity of the behaviour. It may also include the frequency or duration of the behaviour. A hyper-reactive dog may respond with ‘bigger’ behaviours on various ladders of aggression or frustration. They may also have very persistent or repetitive behaviour.
Of course, this criterion may also refer to dogs who are not hyper-reactive. They are just hugely overwhelmed and very close to the trigger. It’s important to rule out anxiety that may be fuelling behaviour.
Many times, these behaviours can sit alongside each other, feeding into each other in ways that can cause our dogs to struggle in modern day life. This is another reason to rule out generalised anxiety. Anxiety primes our dogs to respond quickly and intensely, so sometimes an anxious dog may appear impulsive or hyper-reactive.
At other times, impulsivity may also fuel anxiety, particularly if the behaviour is goal-driven. For example, a dog who struggles when unable to control the movement of wildlife, lifestock or vehicles may feel anxious if they are not able to carry out this behaviour.
While impulsive dogs will often have a low threshold for barking and lunging, they will also have rapid arousal. What this means is that they don’t need much of the trigger to cause them to respond. Catching a brief glimpse of a person walking over 500m away may be enough for a hyper-responsive dog to start barking and lunging for example.
Of course, heightened anxiety and also frustration can cause a dog to be hypervigilant to triggers in the environment. The hypervigilant anxious dog is scanning the world for things that cause them to feel afraid, like ogres and trolls lurking in bushes, or dogs on the horizon. The hypervigilant frustrated dog is looking for cues that predict the likelihood of highly rewarding situations.
My hypervigilant dog Lidy is scanning the world on our walks for cats, particularly when the presence of their odour has alerted her to the fact that they’re in the area. She is not anxious about cats. She is looking for opportunities to chase them, which is highly rewarding to her. When she sees them, she gets frustrated because she is unable to chase them.
A hyper-reactive dog can also have an extremely narrow attentional focus. If you’ve ever wondered why your dog seems to ‘go deaf’ at certain points, it is usually because their attentional focus narrows to fixate on a specific goal or activity.
For instance, if they smell a bird in a bush, they may become focused on finding the bird, and that will narrow their attention. If we can’t narrow our attention to focus on a specific goal, it can be very unhelpful because we’d be easily distracted.
There is a difference however between an untrained dog who has not been trained to focus when you ask and a hyper-reactive dog. A hyper-reactive dog may have had a lot of training and work around distractions. It’s important to rule out a simple lack of training when considering if a dog meets the criteria for being impulsive.
Of course, sometimes, dogs may struggle to acclimate in new environments. Novelty, curiosity and engagement with the environment can also be factors leading to different types of impulsivity. This is one reason that it is important to move beyond a vague and generalised description of impulsivity in dogs.
Highly aroused dogs
Both anxiety and impulsivity can put dogs into states of alertness and arousal. This is another reason that anxiety and impulsivity can be difficult for many to distinguish from one another.
Anxious dogs may also be hypervigilant and struggle in novel surroundings, mainly because they are unsure what will happen. When unfamiliar things appear, this can then prompt them into fearfulness more easily.
Compared to this, hyper-responsive dogs may also struggle in novel surroundings. However, it’s easy to see that they are engaged in everything. They investigate quickly and they tend to approach rather than hesitate. It makes it harder to identify if your impulsive or responsive dog is also anxious in some circumstances. Being one doesn’t exclude being another.
We may see that hyper-responsive dogs seem physiologically aroused. This means we might see piloerection, high tail carriage, exaggerated movements and that their pupils are dilated. They may be panting when it is not hot and their breathing may be fast and shallow. Sometimes, they may even tremble. This is not to say that they are afraid: adrenalised systems look very similar whether it’s fight-flight or hyper-responsivity.
You may also find that their mouth muscles are pulled back towards their ears in a ‘grimace’ and their tongue may also be long and spatula-shaped.
It’s important to rule out generalised anxiety. Anxiety can also prime dogs to respond quickly and at a higher intensity than required for the situation. ‘Fizzy’ dogs can easily be uncertain rather than highly responsive.
It’s also important to make sure that the dog’s exercise needs are adequately met. It’s not uncommon for dogs who have too little exercise to seem as if they are highly responsive. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for dogs to struggle if they have had too much exercise. Running out of self-control because you’re exhausted is not the same as being highly responsive.
It’s also important not to see impulsivity as a ‘blob’ that includes all kinds of different phenomena. Treating all dogs who struggle with hyper-responsiveness as if they are the same is unhelpful. It can lead us to waste time on processes that will not make a difference.
Considering risk, reward and punishment
If we consider impulsivity to affect behaviour, choices, attention and actions, this can help us.
Dogs who make impulsive actions can struggle with reward sensitivity. This means rewards mean more to them. They can be highly goal-driven because they value outcomes. When they cannot access these rewards, then they can also be very frustrated.
Other impulsive dogs can be sensitive to punishment. This means that that they may respond with fear, freezing or aggression if someone punishes them. We cannot know before we reprimand or correct a dog that they may be more sensitive to punishment than other dogs, and yet the results can be devastating. This also includes perceived punishment such as downshifts in quality of rewards, delays in rewards or even switching to occasional reward rather than constant reward.
On the other hand, some dogs are very insensitive to punishment or catastrophic consequences. We may think of dachshunds who think nothing of keeping fighting with a badger three times their size, or dogs who jump out of moving vehicles.
Some dogs repeatedly continue with behaviour despite excessive punishment.
This can sometimes be because the rewards on offer are very powerful for the behaviour they are doing. A husky I worked with would repeatedly run at the electrified cattle fencing until he broke through it, despite how many times he was shocked. The reward of being free was clearly important to him.
Some dogs struggle with a specific aspect of impulse control relating to choices. These are the dogs we may think of as impatient or intolerant of having to wait. Many of you will be familiar with Professor Walter Mischel’s work with marshmallows, where he asked children to choose between one reward now or two rewards after a short time period. What he showed was that some individuals struggle with impulse control over choices even when they know that the best choice would be to wait.
We also see this in dogs. A dog who struggles with Susan Garrett’s ‘It’s Yer Choice’ game is a dog who may struggle to accept delay. Many of these dogs may manifest their struggles in frustrated behaviour.
Impulse control can also relate to the choices our dogs make. Reward sensitivity may also fuel this, making some rewards more difficult to resist.
Dogs may struggle in two ways with attentional focus if they are impulsive. The first way they may struggle is with hyper-fixation. It may be very difficult for them to move on. For example, they may refuse to give up chasing a squirrel many hours after the squirrel disappeared up a tree and off into the woods. They may be difficult for us to move away and move on. This is true even if they have had extensive training to help them work around distractions.
It is not simply a lack of training that is causing their inability to disconnect their attention from a reward. Of course, reward sensitivity can also affect this part of impulse control too. When rewards are very valuable, it can be difficult to disengage from them.
Other dogs may struggle to actually focus for any period of time. This can even happen in the same dog! They may have a ‘butterfly mind’ and lack the wilfull attentional stamina to focus on activities for very long.
Considering actions and behaviour
Some dogs are impulsive in regard to the fact that they act quickly and with excessive intensity for the situation. This may occur in highly charged situations. It’s not unusual to hear of dogs used for sports like agility or protection to suddenly ‘snap’ and for the consequences of that to disproportionate to the situation.
These dogs are often highly trainable and highly responsive. However, this responsiveness can come at a cost. Impulsivity is the ‘dark side’ of responsiveness, and many of these behaviours may seem to come out of the blue. Dogs who act quickly and disproportionately can seem temperamental or difficult to read. We can drive ourselves mad looking for microsignals or indications that they were going to react as they did.
Reactivity and Impulsivity
Dogs who are sensitive to the environment and notice change quickly are certain to notice strange dogs and people before other dogs do.
They may also show signs of ‘big’ behaviours. Those behaviours may be very intense or may last a very long time. They may not bother with smaller ‘microsignals’ of canine communication. It can be difficult to know if they’re the kind of dog that goes from 0-100, or if they were already primed to respond, actually starting at 80 and moving to 100 very quickly.
Truly impulsive dogs in any of the four domains outlined above may need careful, ongoing support. They can be taught to make better decisions in the spur of the moment, but we may never be in a position to leave life to them completely. This of course raises questions about autonomy and choice, as well as accusations of micromanagement and restriction.
Sadly, in a world where people prize ‘working’ lines of certain breeds as a status symbol, or think that they’ll take up a sport with their dog when their dog is not suited to it, the problems of living with a hyper-responsive dog who is barking, lunging, grabbing or chasing are more and more likely. Where breeders are not selecting dogs who have proven their worth in the field and may not even be fit for field sports or working programmes, it is more likely that some dogs may really struggle in many homes – working homes or pet homes.
We can do many things to help our dogs make better decisions dynamically. Interactive play like tug can be a good way to work when our dogs are aroused and help them understand how and when to disengage. Because we can manipulate the arousal in the moment, we can build in impulse control exercises.
Another thing seems to be very beneficial for impulsive dogs: movement. Proprioception and body control can be very useful, teaching dogs that they can actively control what their body does, rather than passively responding to everything in the environment. Simple things can make an enormous difference.
Mari Valgma’s Movement Puzzles from The Moving Canine have also been very useful for many of my clients whose dogs struggle with aspects of impulse control. It actively builds in many facets of impulse control from attentional focus to delayed choice. It also teaches anxious dogs to move confidently through their environment and exposes them to environmental novelty. I’m a huge fan.
We may also have to teach our impulsive dogs how to be steady and how to settle. Ordinary dogs do not always need to be taught how to relax or how to cope without our constant direction. Living with a dog who struggles with many aspects of impulsivity, I know it can be very easy to ‘take over’ rather than reinforcing the good decisions she makes to settle voluntarily or to disengage from an overstimulating world by herself. It is easy to guide her and much less easy to scaffold attempts to move from management.
Human intervention and guidance
I also know that many dogs struggle without any support at all.
Without that supportive environment and a responsive guardian, they can flounder, seeming to make the worst decisions they could possibly make, getting trapped in bad habits like car chasing or frantically grabbing passers-by.
Our hyper-responsive dogs often need a hyper-responsive guardian. We can find ourselves constantly evaluating the world to check if it’s a situation where our dog needs more support or whether it’s a situation we can let them fly solo.
I had exactly those decisions about twenty times today.
At one point, an off-lead labrador approached the other side of the fence in the field where we were exercising. Lidy would not have made a good decision without intervention. In fact, because I had not even seen the dog, she had already made the decision to try to snap at him across the barrier. He was very slow to respond and I had to ask his guardian to call him away. Neither were ‘bad’ or ‘good’ dogs – just dogs on completely different ends of the responsiveness spectrum: one standing there without responding at all, and the other responding too intensely and too quickly.
Having called her away, she was fine. So was the labrador when called away too. They both carried on doing what they were doing before. But both needed support to make good decisions before it ended badly.
Later, several sheep stared at her through another fence. Previously this act of ovine defiance would have caused her to struggle. Observing her meant I could see that she was able to disengage herself.
Knowing when to support and when to step back with a dog who can respond before you can blink is a skill in itself. Thankfully, working on her movement, her disengagement, her focus and her choices has really helped.
If you are struggling with a hyper-responsive dog who is barking and lunging at the world, or even chasing or grabbing, you may find this course on decision-making helpful.
- Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats-E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences.
- Miller, P. E., & Murphy, C. J. (1995). Vision in dogs. Journal-American Veterinary Medical Association, 207, 1623-1634.