Viking Dog Training

The Self Control Game


Does your dog nudge you when you're carrying a plate of food? Jump up at your treat hand? Dive in to steal when you drop something on the floor? Jump up on visitors? Pull on the leash? Impossible to talk to around distractions? These are all self control issues.

Self control needs to become a part of your dog's daily routine. This is the first game I teach any dog I work with, from 8 week old puppies as part of general manners training to older dogs with behavioural issues.

This is the skill that is going to make all other training easier - from recalling off seemingly impossible distractions, sitting and staying around other dogs, leaving the snacks on the coffee table alone, leash walking, etc.

This game is like a conversation between friends. There is no need to use verbal corrections or grabbing your dog. You want a dog who is happy to keep trying to figure out the correct answer, not one who is afraid to make a mistake.

In this game, we are teaching the dog to control himself. If we say or do anything to the dog, that is us controlling the dog, which doesn't teach your dog self control. If you try to force your dog to do what you want by grabbing the dog, your dog will learn to only listen while within arm's length. We want a dog who is able to confidently and reliably make good decisions on his own.

The Game

To get started, grab some treats and put your dog on leash. If your dog is highly food motivated, start with a treat that is lower value. If your dog isn't very food motivated, start with an extremely high value treat, something your dog goes crazy for.

Make sure you are comfortable, as this can take a few minutes. Sit on a low stool or sit on the floor, resting your arm on your leg. The treats are in your closed hand. It's important that your arm is resting on your leg so that it doesn't move when your dog tries to steal the treats. If your treat hand moves, this will turn this exercise into a fun game of "chase the hand around", and that's not what we want. 

Now that you're sitting down with treats in your hand and your dog on leash, your dog is allowed to do whatever he wants to try to get the treats out of your hand. Your dog will probably lick, nudge, nibble and paw at your closed hand. Let your dog figure out that these things don't work to bring out the treats. (You may need to wear gloves for protection the first few times you do this).

You will not say or do anything to try to control your dog, you will only control access to the treats. Don't move your hand away from the dog when he tries to steal the treats. This is what most people naturally want to do, but if your dog can't reach the treats, there is no need for self control. Make sure your hand stays slightly below your dog's head level. 

As soon as your dog backs away from the treats, open your hand. Your dog will once again come in to steal the treats. Simply close your hand around the treats again, there's no need to say anything to your dog.

You will most likely open and close your hand a few times, before your dog realises that trying to steal the treats doesn't work. When you can open your hand without your dog coming in to try to steal the treats, you will use your other hand to pick up one of the treats and hand it to your dog.

If your dog comes in to try to get the treat sooner, put it back in your hand and close it. This has to be black and white for your dog. Try to steal the treats = No treats, the treats will go away. Control yourself = You can have a treat.

This game teaches dogs that instead of going after whatever they want whenever they want, they should be patient and wait for what they want, and good things come from the owner.

Don't be in a hurry to hand your dog the treats. Wait for your dog to make the choice to steal or not steal the treats. Look for a reason to reward your dog, not an excuse to reward your dog. You should be able to have your hand open, praise your dog, and move the treats around in your hand with your other hand without your dog trying to steal them.

Next, try having the treats on the floor while you cover and uncover them as above.

Advancing the Game

When your dog is good at this, advance the game to include all real life situations where your dog might want to steal something. Place treats on the coffee table or any other low surface around the house. If your dog tries to steal the treat, cover them with your hand. If he backs away, praise and give him the treat.

Have your dog on leash and place a treat on the floor. Teach your dog to walk past it without trying to dive for the treat. The leash will prevent your dog from reaching the treat should he try. Reward if your dog can walk with you and focus on you.

When you are cutting up food in the kitchen, "accidentally" drop something yummy on the floor. What is your dog's reaction? If he goes for the treat, simply cover it with your foot. If he waits, pick up the treat and hand it to your dog.

Dealing with mistakes

Should your dog manage to steal the treat, do not yell at your dog or use a verbal correction like "ah ah". This will only intimidate your dog. In the future he might leave food alone, but he will do so out of fear, not because he has learnt that being patient is fun and rewarding.

It's up to you to be fast enough to prevent your dog from stealing the treats. If you make a mistake (and it really is your mistake, not your dog's) and your dog gets the treat, laugh it off and try again. We want to aim for a 100% success rate, but it's not the end of the world if the success rate is a little lower. I've played this game with over 100 dogs and still occasionally make mistakes. We are only human :)

This should be a fun little game and a great confidence builder for your dog. 

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