Teaching your High Drive Dog to have some impulse control
I recently met with a client with a very high drive dog, whom she is training as a service dog. The large, adolescent dog is pretty much everything that I look for in a sports or working dog: high interest in interacting with humans, great play drive, good energy level and mental alertness, and she appears to have a decent structure. Yet, the owner is completely frustrated. The dog has a hard time focusing on her in the presence of distractions (did I mention the dog is an adolescent?) and does not seem able to relax when she needs to. She appears to be always on edge in public, and this has her owner at wit’s end with her.
Many people get these very high drive dogs with specific purposes in mind such as working jobs or rigorous sports, but then find themselves exasperated when the dogs are unable to settle down. This “settle” is something that I teach my dogs as a matter of course, from the early stages of puppy training, but many people don’t realize that, with high drive dogs, this topic requires more attention than it might for a calmer tempered dog. Following are several exercises that I recommend to my clients to help their dogs learn the much-needed skills of settling down, impulse control, and calming in the midst of high levels of distractions.
Reward Calming Signals – This is one of the first orders of business for many of the consults that I do with nervous or anxious dogs, but it can apply to all dogs. (Certainly applies to all of mine!) Calming signals are specific communications by a dog to say that they are stressed out and are trying to calm or settle themselves. (Many are also used to try to convince others around them to calm down.) Among the most common that you may see in these high distraction contexts are the shake off (as if wet, but the dog is dry), the yawn, and the deep breath or sigh. Mark and reward every time the dog offers any of these signals; soon you’ll start to see them more often.
Settle on cue – On the surface, this appears as nothing more than a physical behavior, but the training goes much farther than that. First, to define the settle position, it is actually a “down” where the dog is lying either on her hips (as opposed to in the upright and ready “sphinx” position), or for some wider-hipped dogs, with the rear legs spread out, frog-style. Note that these are positions that dogs typically take on when they are relaxed and not planning to get up very quickly. Both of these can be lured, shaped, or captured, and then put on cue. Following is how I would lure them.
Hip settle – from a “down” position, lure the dog from the nose toward the hip until they roll their hip out. Mark and reward this position, and eventually give it the “settle” cue.
Frog settle – from a “down” position, lure the dog slowly, straight forward from the nose until their legs push out straight back. Note that I will *only* teach this settle with dogs that already have a tendency to lie down in this position.
In both positions, the “settle” should be taught as a sort of “stay” command, in that the dog is to remain in settle until a release cue is given.
Advanced “Settle” training – Once the dog is readily settling on cue in quiet settings, start practicing amid mild distractions. Ask for a settle, and reward then wait, keeping the dog in settle. Whenever the dog offers any sort of calming signal – such as a yawn or a deep breath – reward with more treats. If the she flops over onto her side completely (an “extreme settle”) quietly praise and give more treats.
As a variation on this advanced settle training, another great exercise is to go someplace with mild distractions and just stand there. Reward your dog for spontaneously deciding – on her own – to lie down. Do this often enough and your dog will eventually learn that down is where you want her if you are not in motion, and she’ll learn to settle herself, even amid distractions.
“Patience” games – Self control is another major challenge for many high drive dogs. To teach them to have more of it, I recommend lots of work with “Leave it”, “Drop it” and “wait” for food, as well as stays in general. Another patience exercise that I use (ONLY with dogs that show no food guarding related aggression is to hold a treat at a short distance from their snout and ask for a “wait”. If they move even the slightest bit, the treat goes away. If they manage to keep their nose away and sit still, they get the treat. This teaches them that patience pays off, and impatience does not.
Rev it up and then Settle – Once your dog is getting good at the above exercises, you can incorporate play into your settle down exercises. Start this out at low levels before working up to very high drive play. First, play with your dog to get her excited. Then abruptly stop playing as you say “stop”, and drop the toy. (This game works best with tug toys, but can also be practiced with any interactive people+dog toy.) When the dog sits or lies down (I prefer the down), give a treat and quietly praise, then return to the game. Over time, you can also start to wait for a calming signal after the “stop”, before resuming the game.
High drive dogs often need more mental and physical exercise than the average dog, but they also need to learn to calm down. If you keep your dog on a routine of mental and physical training and practice these exercises often, you too could have a high drive dog that actually has an “off” switch!