Now! Now! Now!

At this time of year it’s easy to remember being an impatient child counting down the days until Christmas.  Oh how excruciating the wait could be!  I was often guilty of carefully unwrapping and re-wrapping gifts.  This was always followed by an Academy Award level performance on Christmas Day as I pretended to be completely surprised.

I can’t remember how old I was when I stopped peeking at presents.  Somewhere along the line I learned that the true surprise that came from not knowing what was inside the package was worth more than the instant gratification of giving in to my curiosity.

In my experience, dogs don’t learn this lesson on their own.  It’s up to us to show them that resisting their impulses will result in even bigger rewards.  For instance, bolting through the door to get outside probably feels fantastic!  But if waiting at the open door results in something even more fantastic, it would make sense to control that initial impulse.

We have to make it make sense to the dog.  An open door = FREEDOM!!  That’s a tough reward to compete with!  It’s not enough to expect your dog to ignore the potential rush of outdoor freedom simply because it’s unsafe for him and inconvenient for you.  That doesn’t make any sense!  Especially when you consider that your dog probably has no understanding that his actions affect your emotions.  In fact, your dog probably has no concept of you having emotions.  Rather, he probably understands that when you make a certain face and use a certain voice, unpleasant things might happen to him or pleasant things might be withheld.  Yes, my friend…it’s all about the dog to the dog!

Anyway…so here we are at the open door, or six inches from some awesome cat poop, or faced with a friendly stranger who seems to be begging to be jumped on…these are all unwrapped presents to the dog.  Our job is to give our dog a really good reason to wait until Christmas…so to speak.


From the human perspective, it may look like this:

     Wait at the door = liver treat, pet & praise, long walk

     Leave the cat poop = liver treat, pet & praise, continue long walk

     Sit for friendly stranger = liver treat, pet & praise


From the dog’s perspective, it may look more like this:

     Freedom OR liver treat, pet & praise, long walk

     Cat poop OR liver treat, pet & praise, continue long walk

     Jump on stranger OR liver treat, pet & praise


What we have to keep in mind is that the value of each side of the equation may or may not be higher than the other side according to the dog.  WE can’t decide what is more valuable.  We have to find out what the dog thinks is more valuable.  In other words, what reward would make it worth it to forego the immediate reward?

This is why I don’t use punishment, other than withholding rewards, for these impulse control issues.  The threat of physical punishment is often far less aversive than the reward of giving into the impulse.  Any of us who have been adolescents at one time will surely understand this concept!  The thrill of staying out late is sometimes worth the trouble you’ll be in later.  Trading parental approval for peer approval makes perfect sense!

Offering teenage humans rewards that are meaningful to them…freedom, autonomy, money (which is really a form of freedom and autonomy), privacy, socialization…is much more salient than any kind of physical punishment.  Withholding these rewards is the ultimate punishment! 

Hopefully, the point of this giving and withholding is to teach the child and/or dog to make good choices and control impulses in order to get better rewards in life.  Of course this results in behavior that is more convenient, safe and enjoyable for others, but that simply can’t be their motivation.  Instead, it’s our bonus for making it make sense to them.

When these trades are repeated over and over again, the urge for instant gratification gets weaker and weaker.  When waiting is consistently practiced and rewarded, like anything else, just doing it becomes rewarding.  The brain starts rewarding the animal (whichever kind) before any real life rewards are presented.

I don’t even think about peeking at Christmas presents anymore.  In fact, I would be disappointed if someone told me what I was getting.  I have learned to love the wait!  I want to wait.  I want the surprise on Christmas day, and the waiting part as become part of the fun.