Here’s a common request for help:
“My dog ‘zooms’ in training. I’ve done a ton of impulse control work and it’s not helping.”
Impulse control work won’t solve the problem of zooming in training, unless the dog also has an impulse control issue. That’s because zooming isn’t usually an impulse control problem, it’s a stress problem. Of course, some dogs have both; they are stressy dogs and they also suffer for lack of impulse control. But that is still two different issues and they need be addressed separately because they have different solutions. Indeed, training for an impulse control problem when it’s a stress problem is likely to make the stress worse, because training for impulse control actually adds measured quantities of stress (in the form of decision making) to teach the dog our expectations.
Dogs that zoom (run wildly without a focal point when they should be working) to release energy and reduce stress are not exhibiting an impulse control problem; they are exhibiting a stress problem. And if you pay attention, you’ll often see the cause of the stress immediately before the zoom (missed contact, redid weaves, lost attention, owner mishandled, etc.).
Running/zooming within training is a stress relief maneuver. It feels good to many dogs. It has no external focal point. What I mean is there is nothing “out there” that is causing it – the dog is not going to anything. That’s how you know it’s not an impulse control issue.
Of course, there is an exception. Why must there always be an exception?
If your dog zooms for fun in regular life, and then sees training opportunities as a chance for more zooming (Big open spaces!) then that could be an impulse control issue. Dog loves to run better than whatever you are doing – dog sees a chance to run in training – dog runs. Then it’s a reinforcer that you are not controlling…impulse control issue.
It’s perfectly normal for some dogs to get the ‘zoomies’ in life – all stress behaviors have a normal variant. No worries if your dog simply loves to run. It’s only an issue when you see it in training – when the dog should be doing some variation of work but instead is running madly.
So what would a dog look like that is demonstrating an impulse control issue?
The dog is working, spies a delicious bag of treats a distance away, and takes off to go help himself!
The dog is working, sees a lovely human a short distance away, and…takes off to visit!
The dog is working, sees his toy on the ground and…snags it.
You get the idea.
Now, a lot of impulse control issues do have an element of stress associated with them. For example, the dog KNOWS that you do not want him to leave work to steal food, visit people, or grab a toy, but he can’t quite help himself. So what started out as a simple impulse control issue is now an impulse control issue with major stress attached to it, and they feed each other. Which means that after your dog does the bad thing…well…now he’s stressed, so he zooms! And since a zooming dog is at high risk for poor decision making, you may also see your zooming dog start to grab random stuff as he runs – because he’s now having a first class melt down. Three problems, all at one time!
It’s important to get a handle on the difference, and what is driving your dog’s behavior, because the way we handle impulse control issues can actually make stress problems worse if the root issue is really stress and not impulse control.
And while treating an impulse control issue like a stress issue won’t make the impulsive dog worse, it also won’t make him better.
When in doubt – assume stress and treat it as such. You can’t do much harm.
I’m sorry this blog post can’t spit out a quick and dirty solution to each possibility, or I would. For now, try to understand what is motivating your dog’s behavior and learn all you can about addressing each of these types of issues. If you know your dog has a stress issue, look at The Bogeyman class with Dr. Amy Cook at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. If you know that your dog has an impulse control issue, look at the schedule in general – lots of classes address this over time. And if you’re not sure what you have, then look at “Train The Dog In Front of You.”