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Impulsivity in Dogs – What Do We Know?

Impulse control. It’s a hot topic in dog training right now. There are many opinions about what impulse control is, how to improve it, and how it impacts behavior.  Many people associate unwanted behavior with poor impulse control in dogs.  For example, trainers often attribute difficultly learning stay, jumping on people, or running through doors to poor impulse control.  Sports dog people worry that it could impact a dog’s performance in competition. Poor impulse control is even a concern for working dogs because of the possibility that it may interfere with the dog’s ability to do their job.

Luckily for us, there has been quite a bit of research done on this topic.  We still have a lot of gaps in our knowledge about exactly if and how impulse control relates to specific aspects of dog behavior (for example, the ability to hold a stay).  However, we do have a pretty good understanding of what it is and may be able to gain some insight into its effect on behavior based on research done in other animals.

In the scientific literature, the term you’ll find is “impulsivity” and it is characterized by two different aspects of behavior.  First, animals that are very impulsive have an aversion to delayed reward. This means that they will choose an immediate but smaller and/or less-preferred reinforcer over a delayed, but larger and/or preferred reinforcer.

The other aspect of behavior that is considered part of impulsivity is what’s called response inhibition. Response inhibition (sometimes called behavioral inhibition) refers to the ability to stop behavior. That could mean stopping a behavior the animal is already engaged in, or not engaging in a behavior in the first place. Inhibitory control refers to not engaging in a behavior in the first place.  But, not just any behavior. What we are interested in here is the ability for the animal to inhibit a prepotent behavior.

What does that mean? It’s just a fancy word for automatic.  That is, a behavior that has been repeated so often, that it doesn’t require any thought or intention.  Prepotent behaviors require active inhibition in order not to engage in them.  A particularly relevant example right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is touching your face.  This is something we do (or did!) without thinking many times a day and restraining from that behavior requires active thought and effort for many of us.  An example in dogs might be jumping on visitors.

People often refer to automatic behavior as a reflex. I want to be very clear that in the vast majority of cases, we are not talking about a reflex. A reflex is a very specific, well-defined behavior. It’s innate (something that doesn’t require any learning) and does not involve the brain. Reflexes are processed through the spinal cord. They have a very specific, limited trigger (for example, changes in illumination), that cause a very specific response (for example, changes in pupil dilation).

Now that we have a better understanding of what impulsivity is, the next question is–how does impulsivity impact behavior? If we look at dogs specifically, we have very limited information. There was one study (Wright et al., 2011) that found some evidence that more impulsive dogs may have more behavior problems, including aggression.  The idea that there may be a connection between impulsivity and behavior issues is an intriguing one and is consistent with my anecdotal experience.  However, this is only one study and we need more information before drawing strong conclusions.

Research on impulsivity and behavior in other species does offer some additional insight, however. In humans, non-human primates, and rodents, impulsivity has been connected to abnormal social behavior (Colledge and Blair, 2001), emotional, cognitive and learning deficits (Pliszka, 1998; Barkley, 2003) and increased aggression (Saldana and Nueringer, 1998).

As a whole, this information tells us that we need to pay attention to impulsivity in our dogs. Especially if your dog is particularly impulsive, it’s important to practice impulse control exercises on a regular basis. Examples include stay, leave it, and Say Please (the dog must sit before receiving something they want, such as going outside or getting attention). Just make sure that you start off easy and when your dog is calm, then gradually increase the difficulty as your dog masters each level.

Luckily, impulsivity in dogs has recently become a topic of interest and quite a few studies have been published on the topic in the last few years. Interested in hearing more?  I’ll be covering this topic in greater depth during one of my talks at the Lemonade Conference. In that talk, I will go into much more detail on the research that has been done in dogs and we’ll address the question of whether or not dogs can have ADHD. If you haven’t heard of the Lemonade Conference yet, it’s a wonderful opportunity to spend an entire 3-day weekend (Memorial Day weekend) geeking out about dog training and behavior. In addition to myself, there are about 40 other speakers, presenting on a wide range of topics!  Go! Check it out now!

If you want even more, I also have my monthly Research Bites webinar where we talk about current research in great detail. The next one is Tuesday, May 12th at 7 pm EST (they are also prerecorded if you can’t attend live).

Have you noticed any relationship between impulsivity and behavior issues in dogs? Do you find that impulsive dogs often seem to get very impatient about getting rewards? Reply in the comments!

Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

2 comments

  1. I have a german shephard adoptee ive had for a year now 2.5 years old whose had no social train until i got him and he has a humping problem and if he cant hump anyone he masturbates himself .Now Ive had dogs my whole life and have never seen this neither has my vet so Im not sure what kind of behavior this would fall under .for a year in the shelter he was exposed to no social training he didnt know what people are cars are dogs are so I suppose he will never be totally normal Any help would be appreciated.I do train him everyday so he is well behaved with me but other people and other dogs no control so i am not sure what to do next???

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