I need to do something about Mira’s impulse control. Or should I say, her lack thereof. A while back, I wrote about how my agility instructor scolded me for saying that Mira was strong willed, asserting that the problem was a lack of impulse control. I don’t know why I didn’t see it that way then, but it sure is clear to me now that this is what is going on.

Take, for example, me letting the dogs out into the yard. In the summer there are often squirrels out in the yard and the dogs have learned to anticipate a good chase when I let them out. Going through that door has become a very high value experience for them, and – given the chance – they explode out of the house at lightening speed. (a perfect example of how to build value for agility equipment!)

I don’t like that they blast out like idiots and have started to make them hold a sit-stay while I open the door, and then release them one at a time. Ross and Hannah have no trouble with this. Mira, on the other hand, can rarely contain herself. Tonight I had them all sit a few feet back while I went to the door to open it and then release them. The game went as follows: I go to the door to let them out. The dogs pile on top of each other in anticipation of blasting out the door. I stand quietly and say nothing. Hannah and Ross see this and move back from the door and sit down quietly. Mira stays with her nose glued to the door.

For the last few days, it was at this point that I would make my misatke: I’d tell Mira to get back. Tonight I discovered that giving her a cue does not help her impulse control, and perhaps makes it worse. Instead of directing her, which allows her to stay in la-la land, not thinking until I tell her to do something, I need her to figure out what she needs to do on her own. That way her brain has to engage, making her more focused and able to hold herself steady. I keep thinking she should already know this, but clearly when she gets this stimulated, her brain shorts out. She needs to learn how to keep her wits about her when she gets excited, and I need to help her learn how to do so.

I figured out what I was doing wrong as follows. While Hannah and Ross sat waiting, I shooed Mira back from the door told her to sit. Then I stood and waited. Once she sat, I tried to take a step towards the door. Mira immediately popped up out of her sit and started towards the door. I blocked her and stepped into her and waited until she sat again. Then I tried stepping towards the door again. Repeat.

I should add that I go through this routine every time I let the dogs out the back door, which is 3-4 times a day when I visit here. You’d think that by now, Mira would get with the program. Certainly Ross and Hannah can hold their sit-stays, without a word from me, throughout the entire time I struggle with Mira. This can be up to 5 minutes! But time after time after time after time, Mira pops up out of her sit and rushes to the door the second I take one step towards it.

Tonight I finally realized that giving her cues (i.e. the blocking her of her path) was detrimental to her learning what is necessary, and stood stock still the second she bolted for the door. I stood there and waited, and waited, while she figured out what it was that I wanted (i.e. for her to go back to her spot, sit, and STAY). She finally did, and I walked to the door again. This time, she actually held her position. I have to conclude that since she figured it out herself, rather than had me tell it to her (via my body language), something became clear(er) to her. That is, she needs to glue her fuzzy butt to the floor until released if she wants to go outside.

I feel bad that Hannah and Ross have to wait all this time and should really have treats on hand to reward their very patient efforts, although being released into the garden is a big enough reward I suppose. But Mira can hold her sit-stay at the door when it’s just her. It’s the anticipation of running with the other dogs that blows her circuits. So I must continue to work on this with all three dogs.

The biggest problem, of course, has been with my impatience. Mira can be very operant (ie. offering behaviours) at times, but when she gets really excited, she becomes fixated on said object or event and stops thinking. She can stand, transfixed, for a very long time. I try and wait it out, but eventually give her some kind of cue as to what it is that I want. I think this is in part her genetic make-up (obsessiveness and lack of self-control seems to run in her lines), and in part the likelihood that I rushed through her foundation training and did not do enough shaping games with her as a puppy. Or at least not enough for a puppy like her. Offering behaviours to get what she wants should be her default behaviour, and it’s not. I need to change that. Self-control comes from operant behaviour, and both can be instilled with patience and practice. Improving this will be my goal for Mira over the rest of the winter.

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