Dog Quest: Impulse Control

Amos hates having his claws clipped. He has good reason to hate this.

He had his claws clipped too short by the breeder as a puppy (7 weeks old) – to bleeding point – and then by the vet nurse (9 weeks old) – also to bleeding point – and, sadly, when he got older, by me. Within the critical socialisation period, he learned multiple times that “claw clippers” mean “big ouchies with blood.”

He yelped. He cried. Poor fellow!

While he no longer yelps and cries, he does get very tense and upset.

To be fair, it’s almost impossible to see the quick on his claws, since they are black. He therefore freaks out about having his claws clipped because he expects it to be painful, but we can do it. Husband stands there to give him treats, to try and show him that good things happen when the clippers show up. At the same time I show Amos the clippers, and let him sniff them, so as not to surprise him.

(note: taking the cats by surprise for claw clipping is necessary, otherwise they will scamper under the bed. It doesn’t matter how many treats I offer Jabba. His priorities are different. Taking a 40+ kg Rottweiler by surprise with something he is scared of is a bad idea and, I think, a violation of trust. I show him the clippers so he knows that I am not going to ambush him)

He grumbles, and I take the paw, and I rest the clippers on the claw until he stops dragging his paw away. Then I clip. His head – his giant, wedge-shaped, flat rottweiler head – comes cruising towards the clippers, and then you can see it.

You can actually see it.

The magical moment.

Impulse control.

He sees my hand on the clippers, and apparently thinks something along the lines of, “oh, crap, it’s Mum!”, grumbles, and puts his head right back where it was. It’s amazing to see. Honestly. It’s extraordinary.

Here’s what’s happening: he wants to bite at the source of the discomfort and the fear. That’s instinct. He moves his head forward, and he sees that the clippers are attached to my hand.

He sees that the source of the discomfort is me. His human. So, he reigns in the urge and pulls back. That is impulse control. Do I think it’s perfect? No. I don’t know that it can ever be perfect. But given how scared he is of having his claws clipped, I think it’s pretty damn good.

I’ve told this story to people who aren’t that into dog behaviour – and they are horrified at the very idea that my rottweiler might have even a momentary impulse to aim his muzzle at me. We have this idea that all dogs are perfect dogs, that never have a thought in their wee canine brains about biting, and the only dogs who ever consider biting are bad vicious dogs, and honestly, that idea has to go. It’s simply not true, and not fair. For Amos, because of his experiences as a puppy, he actually is genuinely super stressed out by the clippers. He’s not just throwing a tantrum. He’s actually frightened. That’s why his head actually moves. But the desensitisation over time is working – he no longer hides when he sees the clippers. It’s just a long road.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: biting is a strong instinct for dogs. It’s not just self-defense: a soft bite, or mouthing, is part of playing, too! Nipping is a big part of doggy communication. If you wrestle playfully with any dog, chances are the mouth is going to open; the impulse for them to mouth at you is right there. You can see it.

And they stop – mostly, unless you’ve taught your dog that it’s acceptable to mouth at you when wrestling or in play, and as a person who owns rottweilers I view that practice with deep skepticism. I want a dog’s personal bite inhibition to be very, very strong. I want dogs to feel confident in their judgement to never bite. I don’t want the possibility of a misunderstanding – “I thought we were playing!” or “But that really hurt!” – to cost a human in injury and, in all likelihood, to cost a dog their life.

I’m okay with the fact that all dogs will think about biting from time to time – when they’re scared, or really riled up in play – as long as they don’t actually do it. There are exceptions to that rule: any dog can slip up if they are in serious pain or a state of stark terror. It doesn’t make them bad or dangerous dogs. It means they’re acting out under stress.

It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that’s why we teach impulse control.

Bite inhibition itself is learned from the puppy’s mother, long before the pup should be going to their eventual loving home. This, by the way, is why puppies should stay with their mothers for the full eight weeks. It cuts into their socialisation period as per their new lifestyle, meaning that the first four weeks with their new owners are going to be packed with new experiences (the first twelve weeks are the critical socialisation period), but it’s important nonetheless.

There are a few ways to teach impulse control.

  1. “Gentle.”

This is just part of teaching the dog to be gentle with their mouth around you. Abby is getting better. Amos is a champion, but to be fair, we’ve been teaching him “Gentle” since we brought him home. It just means that, if I give him a treat, he’s not allowed to lunge for it. He has to bring his mouth to my hand slowly and carefully. I want to know that he’s being careful when he puts his teeth – even the tiny puppy teeth he had back then – near my hand. So if he comes for the treat too fast, I take it away. Then I try again, saying gentle in a calm and quiet voice. The more calm and quiet I am, the easier it will be for him to be calm and quiet. They can learn this quite quickly. Abby will always go for the treat pretty quickly – she was underfed – but she is very careful, and she wasn’t that careful when we first got her. Basically they’ll learn that my hand – the hand that provides treats, and pats, and ear-scrubbles – won’t come near their jaw unless I know they will be careful of their teeth.

  1. Do not let teeth touch skin

My favourite game to play with my dogs is tug. I have a giant tug rope that is large-dog-sized, and I can have two dogs on it at once. One thing I like to do is hold the rope up in the air, get the dogs into a sit or a drop, and once they’re in the appropriate command, say “Yes!” which means they are allowed to jump for the rope.

This can be very exciting for them, a high energy sort of game. When dogs are riled up and excited, they can be careless. So we get to play the game a lot, but the minute they “miss” – i.e., if a tooth so much as brushes my skin, even if it’s an accident and doesn’t hurt – the game stops. I put the rope down, and I ignore the dog responsible. I may even put them outside, especially in the early days with either dog, to make it clear that this is an unacceptable error. I cannot be forgiving, because there is simply too much at stake. I am always, always aware of what happens when a big dog makes a mistake with a human, and the price that dog will pay.

(I will not yell or otherwise be scary. I want dogs to think, not be frightened. I only yell at my dogs when they are so riled up that nothing else is cutting through)

The last time Amos missed was probably over a year ago, probably the first time he’d missed in about a year before that, and it was so very slight, but he knew instantly what he had done. He immediately dropped his body flat on the ground and whined a little. I put the rope down – I have to be consistent – but I didn’t ignore him. He’d gotten too excited, and he’d forgotten to leave his brain switched on, but he knew what had happened.

Abby is a bit more tricky. When we first got her, she loved to groom people. If you’ve seen dogs groom themselves and each other, you know this can involve a certain amount of nibbling. She does it for approval, and for attention, and when she is very anxious she may still revert to this. It’s a nurturing instinct for her, and it comes from a different place than other sorts of mouthing, but all the same, I can’t let it slide (also it does pinch human skin). So she gets told off. Put off the couch. Ignored. Put outside, depending on the circumstances. Again, I have to be firm, but not too fierce; because it’s an anxiety response, making her more anxious will only make her less able to think. And she has learned very, very quickly.

A side note here: dogs learn more from positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement, so I do have an exception. If I say “No,” or “Leave” and Abby stops the grooming the first time I ask, she gets lots of praise and cuddles and pats. I want to teach her to be aware of what she is doing, instead of just running on instinct and ending up outside. Both approaches work fairly well, as I don’t like to train solely based on a corrective model.

In the interests of full disclosure, I allow one slightly unfair inconsistency on this: Amos is allowed to nibble-groom my ears. He usually does it when I’ve been crying a lot, as a way of showing concern, and I’m so immensely touched by the impulse that I let him get away with it. Since Abby would nibble-groom every damn exposed inch of skin if she could get away with it, I can’t make that call for her.

  1. Engagement training

Our trainers are really big on this, and it’s a pretty awesome idea. It’s best done with one dog at a time, so if you have two dogs like I do, clear the decks. Basically the idea is to get your dog super riled up. Maybe that involves a bit of wrestling (if you do that safely with your dog. I don’t like wrestling; misunderstandings can happen too easily; but for some people it’s a key part of how they play with their dog). Maybe it involves jumping around with the tug rope, or running away from them and then chasing them.

Get your dog into stupidly playful mode.

Then give them a command. “Sit” is a good one, since it’s one of the first commands that dogs learn, so it’s one they are more likely to respond to. Remember to give it in your usual tone of voice, with the usual hand signal if necessary (especially if your dog is new to this sort of training), just to help them out. Otherwise they might not recognise the command in their riled-up state.

Reward them as soon as their butt hits the ground. Reward them, release them very excitedly, and keep playing. Do this as many times as your combined aerobic fitness and attention span can sustain. Eventually, you can add in more complex commands, like “drop” or “stand” or “heel”.

Why do this?

This teaches your dogs that, even when you’re mucking about and they’re super excited, they still have to listen to you and respond to you. It teaches them to keep a part of their brain switched on, because, like anyone, dogs switch their brains off when they get excited, and it’s how stupid mistakes get made. Engagement training teaches impulse control in the sense that their impulse is “Keep playing! Keep jumping and chasing!” but their control results in them actually doing what they’re told. It teaches them that it’s rewarding to maintain self control, and actually more fun than losing their shit.

It’s also really fun for your dog, and really good for bonding with them.

Stick with these methods, and they will work. Sometimes I’m amazed at how well they work. Sometimes I deliberately hold the tug rope over Amos’s head in a very awkward position, and say “Yes.” I do this because it’s quite amazing to watch him.

He looks at the rope. He tilts his head. He checks it out from all angles, to try and work out how to get at it without getting my hand. And sometimes he ends up balancing on his hind legs and leaning his head forward to take the rope, because that’s the only way he can play the game without teeth touching skin.

And in those moments, I’m so proud that he’s thinking. It’s the same with the clippers. He’s in a state of high emotion, and he’s still thinking and making his own decisions about what to do.

When we talk about teaching dogs independence of thought, this is what we’re trying to teach them.

Waiting for the rope.

Patiently waiting for the rope game to begin.

TUG! And you can see Abby’s teeth quite well in this shot.

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