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Self Control training for your Dog - SpiritDog Training LLC

Self Control

Self control, again. Something that is on my mind a lot.

Many people try to not only use rewards in training self control, but also corrections. Ranging from no, ah-ah, corrective collars, leash-pops or just plain yelling.


On the internet there are many videos of dogs showing “self control” that are just really unhappy. They might be balancing a hotdog in their mouth, but you can see the white in their eyes showing, and when they are released they look like they are saying “thank God this is over”. To make it worse, often the owners captions those videos with something along the lines of “Look at my poor dog being tortured by self control exercises again”. I had suspicions and asked one of those owners how they had trained the “self control”. The answer: she put the hotdog in the dog’s mouth and then held it shut with her hands, telling him “no no no”. Oh well.


To me, self control means that the dog has a good concept of the consequences of his behaviors and in a particular situation chooses the one which will get him the biggest reward, even though this behaviors means refraining from doing the most obvious thing.


In a basic example, if you hold out a hand with a cookie and the dog knows to sit back and wait rather than steal the cookie, he has self control in this situation.


The key here is “consequences of his behaviors”. In my eyes, these consequences can only be rewards, and withholding of rewards. In some situations this might mean manipulating the environment so it will withhold a reward or even changing your own distance to the environmental rewards so the dog is able to make the choice we hope he will make.


If your dog is working purely for his own success, if he knows the rules of the game and makes his own decisions how to get to his goal, it is self control.


Here is a human example for self control. Let’s say you really would like to buy an expensive pair of shoes (a jacket, a dog bed, a blender, whatever). But instead of just going for it, you wait until that item is for sale. You are patient, you really want to have it but you know your reward will be even bigger if you wait for the price to be reduced. Finally. maybe after months, you see the item of your dreams for 40% off. You buy it. You are thrilled. You probably will tell several friends of your great way to save money, because you are proud of your own success.


Let’s talk about using corrections to achieve “self control”. All of a sudden the joyful game of your dog knowing the rules, making choices and working towards a goal all for his own success gets a bit more serious.

Now the consequences are not getting a cookie or no cookie, but getting a cookie or getting a verbal correction. Will that dog work with the same joy and eagerness? No, why should it? It is not “all games” anymore. It is make a right decision, or get punished.


It is funny that in dogs we find it totally normal to use corrections in “self control”, whereas we as humans have very strong negative feelings about others controlling our success with anything else than rewards.


Take speed limits, for example (my favorite topic!). Abiding speed limits is a behavior that is solely managed through negative punishments (you take something away – a person’s money, or even their driver’s license – to make a behavior – speeding – less likely).


Would you say you control your own success to not get caught speeding? Would you proudly tell friends “Today I really used great self control to not speed, and it felt wonderful”? Of course not! Speeding or not is not a joyful game. It is a matter of squeezing by the punishment to get what you really want (drive to a place as fast as you think you should).


In fact, we see it the other way around! We are proud to escape the punishment when making the wrong choice.


(Aha! Might that be the reason why spraying your dog in the face for counter surfing doesn’t work as soon as you are not there to spray…?)
We have radio announcements of where policemen enforce speed limits, and we might tell our neighbors if there is one on the way to work.


This is the equivalent of one dog telling the other “Quick, the handler is looking away, you can break your stay and go pee on this cool bush now!”
If two dogs had this conversation, we would find it spiteful and probably up the ante on the corrections.


As soon as we use corrections, the control becomes external control. And it will also deteriorate in its quality, as the dog is no longer trying to get the behavior as good as possible to earn the biggest possible reward, but he is mostly trying to escape punishment. This changes the whole picture of the behavior for him.


Don’t use external control, even if it might be faster. Try to achieve true self control and enjoy the tremendous quality of a behavior managed purely by rewards.

Have fun training!