How we Teach Dogs to Resist Temptation

We’ve all felt the lure of short-term satisfaction, a quick hit of pleasure, or temporary relief at the cost of a deeper sense of fulfillment. Our dogs feel this too, and it’s often the cause of several types of poor behavior such as pulling on leash, jumping up, not coming when called, counter surfing, some forms of aggression, etc. Dog can’t connect their temptations with their true costs: it’s a cognitive move that’s beyond their domain. Resisting temptation is a skill, and like any skill it requires structured practice, feedback, and encouragement to develop.

There is a lot to be said about what drives these behaviors, but the fact is we can help the dog learn to ignore temptations by applying training without psychoanalyzing them.

First, make sure we have the dog on a leash. When the dog fails to resist a temptation, this simple structure will prevent it from fully acting out on the impulse. When dogs act out impulsive behavior they further ingrain the pattern of behavior we’re looking to end because every temptation contains some form of implicit reward that reinforces the misbehavior.

To make the training productive we must set a difficult, yet achievable goal for each session. We need enough temptation present to entice the dog, but not so much that the dog can’t resist it while being supported with feedback and encouragement. Most of the time the best way to achieve this balance is adjusting the duration, proximity, and intensity of the temptation.

We certainly want to give the dog a chance to make a good choice before providing feedback, but often poor behavior must be interrupted before we’ll ever see anything good. As we begin training we want to interrupt poor behavior at a just enough level. The just enough level is the amount needed to break the trance of the temptation.  Keep in mind that the just enough level will vary from dog to dog. We’ve had success with verbal no’s, finger snaps, claiming space, compressed air blasts to the haunches, training collar leash pops, and E-Collar feedback. We always introduce any training tool lightly, in a low distraction environment, and check to be sure the dog has a healthy reaction to the feedback. Once the dog understands that the interruption means, “stop, listen, and obey”, then we begin to work around temptations. In our experience, the E-Collar is the most adaptive tool of the lot.  It’s clean, highly adjustable stimulation, does a fantastic job at interrupting behavior at the just enough level.

Feedback is key and is often the missing ingredient in temptation training, but encouragement is equally important and should be doled out generously. When we begin, we reward the dog every couple of seconds it prioritizes the command over the temptation. We encourage dogs with rewards such as food, treats, praise, play, or affection. (Note: Always be mindful to see if your form/level of reward is in service of your goal to resist temptations. Sometimes the wrong reward, or too much of a reward can over excite the dog and cause it to engage in the exact behavior you’re working to stop.)  Normally what works for us is verbal praise while the dog is actively engaged in resisting the temptation, then a bigger reward such as play, affection, and/or treats once they succeed. Over the training you’ll move incrementally closer to the temptation, incrementally increase your distance between us and the dog, increase the amount of time the dog needs to resist/ignore, and perhaps make the temptation even more enticing to proof the training. This may be over a single session or over multiple sessions depending on the dog’s rate of progress.

Obviously, there’s plenty of nuance involved when it comes to giving productive feedback and encouragement, but this is an overview of our proven method. By helping dogs learn to behave around temptations we open of a world of possibilities to them.