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Zooming: Impulse Control or Stress?

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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!

Fun, yes?

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.”


About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

14 responses »

  1. Thanks, Melissa – good read.

    JF ~

  2. Great topic! I have also found that lack of regular exercise for a dog can also cause the zooms. If your dog isn’t getting enough free exercise on a regular basis for him (long line, sniffing, leash free), you’ll see it crop up often.You’ll see this in backyard dogs who don’t get out often. People think this is ‘exercising their dog’ when all they are doing is letting off stress. The zooms disappear if they take their dog for regular walks.

  3. My first dog had both issues at the same time – to an extreme! That was an education. I had to deal with both – the hair-trigger tendency to overstimulation (for which we had to address impulse control) and the fear/stress/nerves (for which we had to address confidence, comfort level, and coping skills) – at the exact same time in the same dog.

    Part of my education as his trainer and handler was definitely coming to understand what was going on with him, and exactly what I needed to gear our training toward in order to help him. That took quite a bit of doing on my part.

  4. I have a dog that gets the you can’t catch me zoomes at the end of an agility run, when its time to leave the ring.

    We have been working hard on learning “put on your collar” and at a trial this weekend it worked OK the first day and fell apart the second. I scratched the final run since things were getting worse with every run.

    But I would love to be able to figure out the source of the stress rather than find a behavior that just covers it up, and I am at a loss.

    • I’m sorry you are struggling – can you possibly duplicate it in training? At this point it might just be a habit?

    • This reminds me of my daughter’s first “Sports Day” at school.
      She ran first in her race, but continued on and ran up the bank around the sports ground and then back down — leading all the other kids in the race and mystifying the teachers and parents,
      When I asked her about it afterwards, she said that it felt so good that she just continued. 🙂
      So I suspect that this is why your dog doesn’t come back at the completing of course. He’s in the running mood ad doesn’t want to stop. I suspect he simply isn’t read to go back in his crate/lie down i the gazebo.

      With my Kelpie (very high energy and active dogs) I used to take him off the trial grounds immediately after his run, and give him a good ball game. Many other people use tug games at the completion of a run to help their dog use up all that surplus energy. If you buy/make a special tug lead for Agility, the stewards will actually hand you his tug toy as he comes off the course 🙂
      Do of course move away from the ring before her gets to play. With my Kelpie I used to always practice heeling away’ from the training area before e got his game as his reward.

  5. In three of the four trials we entered over the last year, my dog entered the ring and at first I could tell that she was reacting to stress, then it turns into a ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ game.

    She gets plenty of exercise and we socialize at the dog park once a week. Also, I go to the show site a couple of hours early to acclimate. So, I am really putting on my thinking cap to figure this one out.

    I like the video Denise had of Lyra at a match, where she would throw the ball after taking only a few steps in the ring. (I think it is in the BTG class) This might work for us and then we can build from there.

    We actually had a qualifying trial in the midst of all of those NQs, so I know that she is able, just a matter of finding the puzzle pieces and putting them together so that we can consitently succeed. 🙂

  6. My boy zooms only at trials while working great together in class. I know it is stress related. Any suggestions?

  7. Arlene Stanford

    My dog likes to visit, and does not get along with all dogs!!!! This creates a real problem. I have a Border collie.been taking agility classes for almost a year

  8. Pingback: How to stop zoomies during agility (or any training)? - Page 3 - Golden Retrievers : Golden Retriever Dog Forums

  9. Do you think that it is possible to inadvertently train zooming or a relative of zooming by working too much on Engagement training and Ring Prep Training/”squishing”? My dog does not actually gallop around but she bounces and leaps so much now when we start with Engagement/squishing or squishing/Engagement and then move in to work. I took the Engagement training to heart because it was just so wonderful and easy and we loved it so much. Now the dog has trouble transitioning from Engagement to work. With a dog show (Rally Novice A which will be her 2nd show, the first one to the judge compliment of “Your dog was with you the whole time but I can’t qualify you because you were off-course so much”) in two weeks is there like something I can crash-course her through or should we not do the dog show if she will stress up in the ring?

    • it sounds like you missed a piece somewhere. Engagement should get the dog excited and focused on you – ready to work. So something happened where she’s not clear on the criteria for work. If you can, take a gold level class at FDSA in any of the classes in the obedience school that focus on these issues, and we’ll get it figured out.


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