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Training Impulse Control: The Default Sit

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Does your dog jump on people? Lunge to greet other dogs? Rush through doorways? Chances are that your dog needs to learn impulse control. In her new book Teaching the Reactive Dog Class, Emma Parsons offers strategies to teach your dog to override his over-the-top behavior —with a default sit!

Excerpt from Chapter 7, Week One Foundation Behavior

Many reactive dogs also struggle with impulse control. These are the types of dogs that typically respond with the canine equivalent of screaming, "NOW!" when confronted with something they want; jumping, lunging, barking, or mouthing. Teaching these dogs the canine equivalent of asking "Please?" politely when confronted with something desirable can result in a huge improvement in quality of life and reduction in stress for these dogs and the people that love them. Imagine how nice it would be if, whenever your dog wanted something—a toy, being leashed for a walk, being released from the car or to his dinner bowl or to a bully stick—he sat politely and waited. Are you ready for the best part? You can teach your dog to offer a sit on his own, without being asked or cued, whenever he wants something! It's called a default behavior.

The purpose of teaching a strong default behavior (in our class, "Sit"), is because we want the dog to be able to make good decisions for himself in the absence of instruction from you, the handler. If you happen to be out walking your dog and a neighbor stops to ask you a question, it would be nice if your dog chose to sit and wait politely as opposed to an inappropriate behavior he might have selected before class, like barking and lunging.

In her book Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt says "Truly conditioned default, or automatic, behaviors can override instinctive behaviors. A default behavior is one that the dog can fall back on when he is upset, frustrated, excited, or just plain wants something he's not getting." This behavior needs to be practiced to the point where it becomes automatic in nearly any environment.

You should begin practicing these exercises with the training equipment your dog uses in class and in a distraction-free environment. This allows both you and your dog to grow further acclimated to the tools you need to manage his behavior effectively.

We often recommend sit simply because it is a behavior that most dogs already know.

You may prefer your dog's default behavior to be a down as opposed to a sit. Both are equally effective, so use whichever is more comfortable and reliable for you and your dog. We often recommend sit simply because it is a behavior that most dogs already know somewhat well when they start attending reactive dog class. If you choose a default down as opposed to a sit, remember that lying down places dogs in a substantially more vulnerable position than sitting, so when introducing distractions, you may have to split your criteria even further than students who choose a sit.

Training the Default Position

  1. Teach your dog to sit, using shaping, capturing, or targeting.
  2. Ask your dog to sit.
  3. As your dog sits, click, and toss a treat so he has to get up and retrieve the treat.
  4. When he has finished eating the treat, if you need to, say his name to get his attention. Watch carefully as he eats his treat, because as he finishes it, he will make a decision, either to look back at you or look back at the environment. If he chooses to look at you, capture his attention with a click and a treat! If you notice his attention is wandering back into the environment, quickly say his name and be ready to click and treat when he turns in your direction to respond.
  5. Repeat steps 2–4.
  6. Practice this behavior 5 times.
  7. Move to another location. Repeat steps 1–6.
  8. Practice for two sessions, of five sits each, per day. Bonus points for keeping some treats in your pocket as you go about your day and capturing offered sits outside of regular training sessions!
  9. Practice in a variety of environments to "proof" the behavior.

Note: "Proofing" is the process of teaching your dog to respond to your cues in any situation. The process involves breaking the goal behavior down into tiny component pieces, gradually increasing the difficulty level at a speed dictated by your dog's enthusiasm and understanding (as reflected by the rate of reinforcement you are able to achieve in a given session).

To learn more about Teaching the Reactive Dog Class, or to purchase, visit http://www.clickertraining.com/teaching-the-reactive-dog-class.