Or at least a whole lot of them.
A big problem with teaching impulse control is that pet owners usually don’t associate their dog’s out of control behavior in one area, such as jumping all over visitors, with their out of control behavior in another area, like snatching toys from the owner or stealing food. They treat all these problems as separate issues with separate solutions, when really they’re all a problem with impulse control. These are all exciting or tempting situations, so the dog is already halfway to failing before you even start. To set your dog up to succeed, you need to create a situation where the temptation is within the dog’s current ability to resist, and with things like visitors that’s very difficult. Since your dog is so keyed up, normal treats probably won’t be accepted, so you’ll have to use higher value ones, which may cause the dog to become even more excited. Treating every behavior individually is incredibly overwhelming and difficult.
If you treat impulse control as an everyday issue that effects most of your dog’s behavior, you can start working on it in easy situations that seem unrelated to the problems you have. For instance, waiting for them to sit politely to get attention from you rather than shoving their nose under your hand and demanding it. You may not particularly mind the rude behavior in this instance, but your dog needs to practice communicating what he wants in a polite way, which includes waiting for you to give it to him. Starting to build a foundation of impulse control in easy, everyday situations such as getting attention and getting meals or treats can be expanded to gradually include more exciting or difficult scenarios, such as getting out of the car or meeting strangers. Since it’s so much easier to practice impulse control with toys or food or attention than it is to arrange visitors to come to your home and help you teach your dog, you can get many more repetitions of the correct behavior into a day, and your dog learns much faster. More importantly, the owner isn’t failing because of an inability to set up complicated practice scenarios.
Initially, you’ll want to choose one default behavior, like sitting, for your dog to use in every situation until you’ve got good impulse control in most situations. Then, if you want a different behavior in some circumstances, such as going to a mat or crate when people knock on the door, you can start from a foundation of calm behavior and with a dog that’s no so excited they’re unable to learn. Let the dog master one base behavior in many exciting or stressful situations before you add more complications to the task.
Expecting impulse control and calm behavior is reasonable for most dogs, but especially in the case of fearful dogs, it may not be reasonable in all situations. If your dog is fearful of visitors, asking them to sit politely by the door is going to be very difficult no matter how good their impulse control is. For these dogs it’s better to train a more active alternative behavior, such as running into another room for a long-lasting chew or to play with a favorite toy. Just think about how hard it is to do nothing when you’re afraid and you’ll understand why it’s better to give a nervous dog something to do. This is harder to generalize and will take more active participation on your part. Examples include walking at the vet instead of asking them to sit in the waiting room, working on walking exercises when another dog passes you on leash, running to find and retrieve a specific toy instead of freaking out about sirens, or training extra tricks such as jumping or spinning in a circle for your dog to perform on command when they’re stressed. Some higher energy breeds may be so high strung that these methods are useful for them even if they’re not afraid. It’s still important to teach impulse control, but it can be modified in specific circumstances for dogs with special needs.
Even in these special situations, everyday practice is what builds success. In the example of the fearful dog going into another room when people knock on the door, you could keep most of their stuff in that room and make hanging out in there a habit. It should be a safe, fun place to be. If you’re nervous, you probably go somewhere familiar and comforting. You can build the habit of hanging out in a specific spot before the stressful situation comes up. In high stress situations, you’re depending on habit to get you the behavior you want because your dog simply isn’t able to think or learn effectively at those times.
When you begin working on impulse control in little everyday ways, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your dog can improve because of simple repetition. When it’s so easy to train, you’ll be able to do it more, and your dog will quickly learn what he’s expected to do, and will have a habitual response to use in new situations. It’s the foundation of setting your dog up for success and one of the easiest ways to improve your satisfaction with your dog.