We’ve all seen those dogs (or even owned those dogs). The ones that bark and screech on leash while passing another dog on the trail because they just want to say hi so bad. Or the ones that jump, scratch, and nip at you as you walk through the door at the end of the day because they are just so happy to see you. Or the ones that continue to play with another dog at the dog park even after that pup has clearly tried to communicate that they are done, causing yet another fight to break out.
All of these dogs lack self-control.
They want something but they can’t quite get it. They lack the ability to rein in their arousal and soon they’re literally bouncing off the walls (or you) in frustration.
But we can’t blame the dogs in these situations. Like a toddler who drops to the ground in a fit after being told they have to wait for dessert, a dog needs to be taught how to control their emotions. Lucky for you, there are some fun, easy, and rewarding games you can play with your pup to teach them the art of Doggy Zen.
What is Impulse Control?
You’re familiar with the feeling. You want something, or want to do something but a voice in the back of your mind makes you hesitate. Maybe it’s the donut enticing you from the table in the breakroom. Or the beautiful weather calling to you on your commute to work.
This feeling wells up inside you and you want to act to eat that donut or play hooky and go for a hike. But instead, you consider the bigger picture and ignore these impulses. You’ve just demonstrated self-control. But you weren’t born with that ability, and neither is your dog.
Impulse control requires a dog to stop themselves from doing something that would otherwise be very rewarding. To help your dog develop impulse control, you need to convince them that waiting or behaving differently is worth it.
You learned, through much trial and error, that sometimes there is a better reward for NOT doing something you want. Like how much better you feel after a salad than after a sugary snack. Or how much less stressed you are when you finish your work project before the weekend.
In each of the following Doggy Zen games, you will present your dog with an opportunity to act impulsively and not get what they want. Or rein in their impulses and get rewarded. Through the use of these types of games, your dog will learn that being calm and collected is not only less frustrating but often leads to getting what they wanted in the first place.
Best of all, once your dog has the opportunity to flex this new “impulse-control muscle” in controlled situations, they’ll be more likely to engage it in real life. Whether they’re playing with a puppy pal or staring at the roasted turkey sitting on the counter.
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7 Games that Will Help Your Dog Learn Self Control
The following games help to teach your dog impulse control by reinforcing them for being calm, patient, or both. By rewarding these behaviors and not rewarding your dog for acting out-of-control, panicked, or frustrated, these games will also reduce the frequency of these types of problem behaviors.
Zen Game 1: To get the treat, you must leave the treat
The first game you can play with your dog to reinforce self-control is one that requires your dog to stop focusing on a treat in order to get the treat. This game is similar to how you would teach your dog the leave it command, but in this case, you won’t be giving your dog any type of cue.
By not asking your dog to perform any specific behavior, you leave it up to them to figure out what they need to do to get the treat. Forcing them to think through the situation this way helps build a strong behavior that they are more likely to repeat in future situations.
Make sure your dog can’t reward themselves by grabbing the treat your trying to get them to stop paying attention to. Only attempt something like the above feat once your dog has mastered the game.
There are many ways to set up this game, but in its most basic form, you will start with your dog in front of you and a treat bag full of tasty treats. Without asking your dog to do anything in particular, take a treat in your hand, show it to them and then ball your fist around it and hold your fist in front of their nose.
Most likely, your dog will paw, gnaw, lick, and try their hardest to physically remove the treat from your hand. Keep your fist still and completely ignore them while they do this.
You are waiting for your dog to stop obsessing over the treat and calm down. At first, this may just mean they stop physically mauling your hand and back up slightly. Or they may offer a sit or a down. Whatever they do, as soon as they leave your hand alone, praise them and give them the treat.
Each time you play the game, wait a little longer after your dog stops trying to get the treat. By withholding the treat for a moment more each rep, you’re forcing your dog to stay calmer longer before they get rewarded.
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Once your dog starts to understand that they only get the treat when they try not to get the treat, then you can take it to the next level. This time, wait to reward your dog until their attention leaves your fist. They may look at your, sniff the ground, or look somewhere else entirely. Once their eyes move off your fist, praise them and give them the treat.
This step further reinforces the idea that obsessing over something won’t get it. And in fact, sometimes the best thing to do is ignore it altogether.
You can also play this game by setting a treat on the ground and then covering it up if your dog tries to get it. Then only allowing them to have the treat once they stop paying attention to it. Once your dog masters that, then you can up the stakes by putting the treat directly on their paw. It takes a serious amount of impulse control to not eat something that is touching you, just inches from your mouth. But if you work slowly enough, even the most spastic pooch can get to this point.
Zen Game 2: To go through the door, you must not go through the door
Door rushing is a common canine behavior, especially when going through the door means getting to go on a walk, going to the dog park, or taking a fun ride in the car. Instead of reinforcing your dog for blasting through the door at a hundred miles per hour by taking them on a walk or loading them in the car, force them to use some self-control by playing this game.
Get your dog on a leash and get them excited to go through the door (be it the front door for a walk or the back door to play in the yard). Make sure they are standing on the side of you closest to where the door opens. Keep your leash slack so it isn’t pulling on your dog, but do make sure you have a good grip in case they make a run for it.
Teaching your dog to pause while you open the door isn’t just great for building self-control. It can also help keep them from bolting out the door when it is accidentally left open. (self-taken)
Slowly open the door. If your dog tries to move through it, quickly shut it before they can get their nose between it and the door frame. Wait a moment for your dog to calm down, then slowly start opening the door again.
Each time your dog tries to rush the door, close it. After multiple (or many if your dog is very excited) attempts your dog should start to realize that trying to go through the door is what causes the door to shut. At that point, you should be able to open the door wider and wider with each rep, before your dog tries to rush through and you have to shut it again.
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Once you can open the door fully and your dog doesn’t try to move through it, praise your dog and step through, enticing them to move with you. Now you can reward them with a walk, car ride, or even just a quick romp around the yard.
Repeat this game every time you take your dog out the door. Over time, they’ll not only learn that they have to wait before they can rush through an open door, but also that containing their excitement means they get what they want faster.
You can also play this game with a kennel door if your dog is crate trained or has an outdoor run. When you go to let your dog out, open the door slowly. If they try to rush out, shut it and try again. Only praise them and call them out once they can stay in the kennel until you get the door fully open.
Zen Game 3: To get the toy, you must wait for the toy
This is a great game for dogs who love to play fetch or just chase after toys.
Start with your dog on a leash and their favorite ball, frisbee, or another toy. Ask them to sit, then toss the toy about ten feet away (make sure you throw it farther than your leash will reach but not so far that your dog loses track of it).
By teaching your dog to hold themselves back from chasing a toy, you’re helping them develop mental skills that translate to not chasing after squirrels, cars, and other enticing objects.
Most likely, your dog will jump up to chase the toy. Hold your leash firmly so that they can’t actually get to the toy. Carefully control your dog with one hand and pick up the toy with the other so they don’t have a chance to retrieve it (you can also have a helper retrieve the toy for you). Go back to your starting point, ask your dog to sit and toss the toy again. Hold your dog back if they try to run after the toy.
Continue this process until your dog hesitates when the toy is thrown. This may mean they stay in the sit while the toy is tossed and hits the ground, or it may mean they jump up, but stop themselves before they hit the end of the leash. In either case, drop the leash and excitedly say, “Yay! Go get it!”
Praise and pet (or chase and wrestle, if they prefer) your dog once they retrieve the toy.
Once you get the toy back, repeat the above process. Once your dog understands that going after the toy right away means they can’t get the toy, they should stop trying to get it sooner with each rep. Once they have stopped hitting the end of their leash, then up the stakes by only releasing them to get the toy if they stay seated through the full throw.
Our goal with this game is not necessarily to teach our dogs to stay in a sit every time a ball is thrown, but more to reinforce the idea that sometimes if they want something, they have to be patient or they won’t get it.
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Zen Game 4: To continue to play, you must stop playing
This is a great game to play with dogs who love to play tug or chase.
Start by getting your dog excited and playing. If your dog likes tug, get their favorite rope toy and start tugging. If they like chase, start chasing. After a minute or two, suddenly stop playing. Let go of the tug or stop chasing, turn your back on your dog and stand completely still with your arms crossed.
If your dog gets too amped up with an overly active game to calm down when you stop, try playing a less exciting game first, like a low key game of toss in the living room. Once they master calming down with that game, try something more exciting.
Most likely, your dog will start jumping on you, pawing you, barking at you, or otherwise trying to get you to start playing again. Continue to ignore them and don’t make eye contact.
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You are waiting for your dog to calm down. This may mean they lay down and start chewing on their toy or they may trot off to go sniff something. Whatever they do, the moment they stop harassing you, immediately start playing with them again.
After a few minutes repeat the above process. You should notice with each repetition, that your dog gives up on trying to get you to play again quicker and quicker. Eventually, the moment you stop playing your dog should immediately calm down and wait for you to start the game again. Once they do this, then you can extend the amount of downtime before you start the game up again. This part of the game, especially, is good for teaching patience.
This game is perfect good for dogs who tend to get into skirmishes at the dog park because they don’t know when to stop playing. It also works well for dogs who demand bark when their owner ignores them or is too busy to play. This is because, in addition to patience, this game teaches your dog how to go from 100 to zero in an instant.
Most dogs don’t know how to control their emotions that well. If they are amped up, it takes them a while to calm down. But, by reinforcing them with more play only after they show restraint, you teach them how to move fluidly between excitement and relaxation.
Zen Game 5: To go where you want, you must go calmly
This game works well for teaching self-control as well as good leash walking manners.
Start with your dog on a leash and head out on your normal dog-walking route. As you set off, pay attention to the tightness of the leash. If your dog pulls, stop moving and wait for the leash to loosen. This might happen because your dog turns back around to face you or if they take a step backyard. In either case, the moment the leash loosens, say “good dog!” and start moving forward again.
When you walk your dog, getting to go forward and check out new smells and sights is their reward. By only allowing them that reward when they are calm and not tugging on the leash, you are teaching them that walking nicely is more rewarding than pulling.
Keep in mind, it may take some time before your dog lets the leash loosen. Many dogs, especially if they are used to pulling on the lead, will stand at the end of it for minutes without budging. For dogs like this, it can be helpful to completely turn around and move in the opposite direction (back toward home) whenever the leash tightens. The moment your dog steps up by your side (as they turn to follow you) praise them and turn back around and start walking as you were before.
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Continue stopping or turning every time your dog pulls on the leash. The first time you attempt this, you may only walk a block in an hour. That’s ok! This is an especially hard game for many dogs because there are so many things outside to distract them from thinking about how they can get what they want.
But, over time, your dog will learn that the only way to move forward is to do so without pulling. It takes a lot of impulse control to move toward something you really want (like that next bush to sniff or that bird on the sidewalk) at a controlled pace.
Continue working with your dog until the time between stops or turns increases greatly. If you don’t have the time or patience to play this game on every walk, then choose a special leash or harness set up for when you are playing the game and use something different when you are not. For instance, you could hook your leash directly to your dog’s collar for walks when you are playing the game, then use a harness to walk your dog on normal walks.
>>>Want to take your walking to the next level? Teach your dog how to heel without a leash.
Zen Game 6: To get what you want, you must forget what you want
This game is all about rewarding your dog for being calm. It is an especially good game to play if you are going to be stationary for a while, like while working on the computer or watching TV.
Start with your pup on a leash. Tie the leash around your waist or hook it to you with a carabiner, just make sure there is enough length for your dog to move around and lay down. Get some high-value treats and hold them in your hand or place them on the table next to you. Ignore your dog no matter what he does to try and get your attention and get one of the treats. They might bark, whine, paw, or just stare at you. Whatever they do, avoid eye contact and continue about your work as if they aren’t there. Be patient, because it may take a while for your dog to do what we want.
In this game, you are not only waiting for your dog to stop paying attention to the treats, but to actually relax. Only once your dog lays down and calms down will you drop one of the treats next to their muzzle.
Your dog may still keep their eyes on you after they lay down, but as long as they are visibly relaxed you should reward them. If they are still whining or panting, then wait a little longer to deliver the treat.
Don’t praise or use your positive marker, as this will only serve to excite your dog again. Still, once you deliver that first treat, your dog will most likely jump up and start obsessing over the other treats in your hand again.
Ignore your dog as you did before. Once they lay back down and aren’t focused on the treats, then drop another treat for them.
Continue this process over and over. If at any point your dog does not get up after you drop their reward, then go ahead and drop a second reward. If they continue calmly lying down, continue dropping treats every five to 10 seconds.
You can also play this game in a less structured way by surprising your dog with treats anytime they are being calm. If you’re cooking dinner and notice your dog is sleeping in the corner instead of begging, place a couple treats in front of their nose and let them wake up to the reward. Or, if you find your dog relaxing in the sun, calmly pet and praise them before moving on.
Being relaxed rarely brings about rewards in our dog’s lives. Chasing squirrels, begging, jumping up, these are the typical behaviors your dog gets rewarded for (by your attention or by the excitement of the situation itself). This game changes the rules and helps your dog build self-control by reinforcing the idea that being calm can be very rewarding.
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Zen Game 7: To do what you want, you must do something else
If your dog has relatively good impulse control in calm situations but forgets the plot in really exciting situations, this is a great exercise for them.
In this game, our focus is on getting our dog to listen while they are excited rather than reinforcing them to be calm or patient.
Place, tag-up, and targeting are great active behaviors you can ask your dog to perform when they are already excited.
You’ll need to play this game when your dog is about to get to do something they like. Maybe you’ve just arrived at the dog park or are about to put dinner down. You can even play this game at the front door before you go for a walk.
Before you allow your dog to partake in whatever activity they are excited about, ask them to do an active behavior. Don’t ask them to sit or wait, or any other stationary trick. Instead, ask them for something that takes a little energy to accomplish, like spin in a circle, high-five, or rollover. Just make sure this is a behavior they know well and can typically complete on command.
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Only once they have successfully completed the behavior should you let them off leash to go play with their doggy pals or give them their dinner.
Once your dog understands the concept, you can ask them for a little more. Next time your dog is about to do something exciting, ask them for two behaviors. Maybe ask for that spin first, then once they complete that, ask for a twirl in the opposite direction.
Once your dog gets the game, you can ask for multiple behaviors before rewarding them. By asking your dog to perform active tasks when they are already excited, you are teaching them to listen when they are in an aroused state. And, more importantly, you are teaching them how to control that arousal. This is a key building block of impulse control.
Reinforcing Impulse Control in Everyday Situations
Once you have introduced the concept of ignoring something to get it or not doing something to do it, you should give your dog opportunities to practice those skills in real-life settings.
Dogs who learn to control their own impulses are less likely to get themselves into trouble in real-world situations when their owners aren’t around to keep them in check.
Wait to put your dog’s dish down until they have turned their attention away from it or until they calmly lay down. If your dog is getting too excited on a walk, stop and don’t start moving until they are visibly more relaxed. Stop in the middle of a game of chase and ask your dog to complete three rapid-fire commands before starting the game back up.
Each time you help your dog use impulse control, the stronger their self-control muscle will get and the more likely they’ll be to flex it on their own in the future.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.