Build Impulse Control Through Play

Unregulated, high arousal play may wipe our dogs out but could contribute to hyperactivity and arousal-related behavior disorders. Learn how to use Structured Play to teach your dog to regulate their arousal and build impulse control


We hear all the time in dog training that "a tired dog is a good dog", and young pups, particularly working breeds like retrievers, shepherds, and terriers can seem like they have endless energy to burn. Of course, every dog has different enrichment needs however, on average, most dogs don’t need more than 30-45 minutes of high arousal enrichment (e.g. tug, fetch, chase) a day. One problem we see commonly at CCA is a dependence on short bursts of extremely high energy activity to wear a dog out for the rest of the day. It seems common sense: hype the dog up to wear the dog out however unregulated, high intensity play can contribute to hyperactivity and may not be in their, or your, best interest




The fact is massively reinforcing play in high states of arousal can fuel impulsivity, pushiness, and create a dog that struggles to calm down. This excessive high arousal exercise can contribute to a chronic high arousal state, lower impulse control, and chronic stress. 


We all know a few of these “intense” dogs. They are hyper, barky, running around, on and off the furniture, all up in your space with wide eyes and big panting smiles. They may play nicely, and be very friendly but they struggle to “switch off” and just chill out, and can get pushy and impulsive when denied something they want. Or perhaps you know one of those intense dogs who similarly struggles to chill out and relax but who’s excitement and arousal tips over to more aggressive behavior. These are common behavior issues seen at Calm Canine Academy, particularly with working or high arousal breeds.


There can be a genetic component to arousal disorders, but we almost always see hyperactivity, over arousal and low impulse control coming hand and hand with inappropriate play habits. Think about it, how often have you heard “practice makes perfect” or perhaps the more nerdy “neurons that wire together fire together”? It seems to be common sense that if our dogs regularly practice super high arousal activities, with little to no control or moderation that neurological pattern of excessively high arousal may seep into other areas of their behavior and create dogs that jump wildly on guests, excessively mouth, nip, bark and generally lack control over their body and behavior. 


It horrified our wonderful clients to hear that their pup’s favorite wild, ruleless fetch and tug games may be contributing to their behavior problems and many asked us what they can do to help their dog play in a more appropriate state of arousal. The answer is… Structured Play 


What is structured play? 


Structured play is a play method that fosters clear communication, reinforces healthy arousal habits, and builds impulse control. Particularly useful for dogs that struggle with impulse control, hyperactivity, arousal, reactivity, anxiety, and aggression



Who benefits from structured play?

  • Puppies learning not to nip 
  • Young and adolescent dogs 
  • Dogs with low impulse control 
  • Dogs who nip, jump, bark or paw to initiate play 
  • Attention seeking dogs 
  • Anxious dogs 
  • Impulsive, predatory and high arousal breeds like shepherds, retrievers, terriers, and sighthounds.
  • Reactive, fearful or aggressive dogs 


How does it work? 


Reinforcing calm with play 

  • Playing is highly reinforcing for most dogs, and using Structured Play to harness its power for your training can be a game changer (pardon the pun)
  • This means we can use play time as an opportunity to train and reinforce specific behaviors not have a 
  • Through this we can increase dog-handler communication, and - through classical conditioning - create a dog that loves to do things like sit, give you attention, stay, and wait 
  • From now on we are going to ask your dog to “say please” with any polite behavior, or trick, mark the good behavior (say "Yes" or Click) and then engage in play as the reinforcer (e.g. throwing the ball, or 30 seconds of tug etc) 


Moderating arousal through impulse control 

  • Asking for “say please” impulse control behaviors in between bouts of play can help moderate arousal and - through increasing difficulty - develop impulse control
  • Some common impulse control behaviors are sit, down, stay, attention, and wait 
  • If your dog struggles to perform any impulse control behaviors while playing, try interspersing Relaxation Work into play sessions to keep arousal down 

Clear communication and boundaries 

  • Clear communication that the game is over can help our dogs shift into relaxation, and minimize frustration. 
  • Pick a verbal cue and gesture, people often use “all done” with an open palmed gesture to show they don’t have a toy or food 
  • When you want the game to be over, give the verbal and gestural cues, and put any toys down/away. 
  • It is often wise to give your dog a low arousal project like a chew, frozen kong or puzzle toy to help them shift into relaxation  
  • Ignore your dog's attempts to solicit play. Often even looking at your dog when they are attention seeking is reinforcing, so make sure to ignore completely or walk away. Reinforce calm settling behaviors like laying down with pets and verbal praise 


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