Impulsive Players

Tell me if you’ve ever met a dog exhibits sudden and intense episodes of manic play where they jump and bite at your clothing or arms. It seems playful, but the dog is unable to pick up on cues from you that you’re not having a good time. When dogs exhibit one of these outbursts the owner is usually left feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, angry and in some cases … scared. In the aftermath of one of these episodes, people are left with long red welts, bruises and the occasional swollen lip. 

This is different from typical jumping that occurs during greetings. While an excited greeter can still be frustrating, at least the behavior is predictable. It happens when family, friends or acquaintances walks through the front door and usually stops after about 5 minutes. The behavior that we’re discussing in this post usually catches the owner off guard. The root of the problem is more complicated than it might first appear. The jumping typically occurs when dog becomes over-stimulated (fearful, anxious, aroused) by the environment or by changes in the environment. The dog can go from 0 to 60 in a few seconds, and it takes substantially longer for the dog to “come back down” to calm.

Commonalities in dogs that exhibit this type of behavior:

These dogs usually spend, or have spent, a significant amount of time “cooped up.”

  • Meaning, they spend more than 4 hours in a kennel or crate during the day. In some cases, this is necessitated by the dog’s impulsive tendencies to jump up, chew on things, or surf table tops.

Their outside time is usually filled with high stimulation activity.

  • To counter-balance the amount of time that they spend in-active, the owner might try to “tire the dog out” with long games of fetch, day care, frequently trips to the dog park or long runs. These dogs become accustomed to an “all or nothing” approach to living life. They have not spent a significant amount of time learning how to settle in high stimulation settings, and they are not learning how to regulate play.  In these cases, dogs are conditioned to become “adrenaline junkies,” anxiously waiting for the source of their next high stimulation activity. If it doesn’t come soon enough, these dogs will create a high stimulation event with their rough and tumble play.

It’s common for owners to feel that these dogs need a firm hand.

  • When a dog acts out of line they usually try to roll the dog to their side, give the dog a hard stare, knee the dog in the chest or use other aversive training tools. A dog that is already on an adrenaline high is likely to respond to these challenges (intimidation or pain) by attempting to “match” the person’s combative approach. An aversive approach can, in some cases, suppress the behavior for a short period of time. But like a covered pot of boiling water, there is a limited amount of time before the dog blows their lid.

Here are 6 Training Tips for Impulsive Players:

Training Tip #1: Train together.

Training is a way to help your dog improve their problem solving skills. Food puzzles are becoming more and more popular, however, it’s even better if the problem solving becomes a bonding activity between you and your dog. Train them to a high level of fluency on calming behaviors. For example, settling on a training mat or dog bed, sitting or lying down on a variety of surfaces or heeling by your side. Start in a low stress, low distraction environment. Once your dog looks like an obedience super star in your house or backyard, gradually build up to more challenging environments. Remember that learning is an on-going process, there is always room for growth.

Training Tip #2: Ditch the Dog Food Bowl

Animals spend the majority of their day working to acquire food. Even we spend the majority of our mental and physical energy working to put food on the table. Our domesticated dogs are given free meals. Sometimes we ask them to sit (or for some other trick) before meal time but that takes up the smallest fraction of their total energy. The excess mental and physical energy fuels the most common behavioral issues. If you want to do a better job of utilizing your dog’s brain power you should get rid of your dog’s food bowl, and start making them work for their food in training sessions. Your dog will thank you, and your relationship will flourish in ways you never thought possible. It’s a great idea to carry your dog’s meals on walks. Fill up your training pouch and stop at a nearby park to hand feed your dog. This is a great way to promote calm, engaged behavior on walks. A dog that is calm and engaged is less likely to pull on leash, and more likely to come back when called when they are off the leash. Every dog can benefit from doing this.


Use higher value (meaty) food reinforcement whenever you’re challenging your dog to learn a new behavior, or when you are trying to generalize a learned behavior to new distractions or or to a new environment.

Training Tip #3: Teach them how to play.

This jumping/mouthing behavior is the result of a mis-directed effort to “play.” Some of these dogs find playing with their toys to be less interesting/stimulating than jumping and mouthing at their owner’s arm. Other dogs have no clue what to do with a dog toy, they’ve never learned how to play. We need to teach them. I personally have found that teaching dogs to play tug with well outlined rules can be a very constructive way of teaching dogs to issue more impulse control. You can also play fetch. Regardless of the game, the most important tip is to s-l-o-w the game down. Trying to do a lot of high intensity play will only fuel their fire. Instead, get your dog to think and problem solve. It’s also important to keep your playtime short. For example, it’s best to do 5 minute play sessions, 2 or 3 times each day. Avoid long play sessions. People generally try to “tire dogs out” with long games of fetch or tug, when in reality the dogs are just becoming over-stimulated. End each play session with a decompression activity like a relaxing nature walk, or by giving them a high value chew.

click here for a video regarding rules of play for tug

This also helps them think through high arousal and learn to become more in tune to their owner’s facial expressions and body language. However, many owners feel uncomfortable playing tug because it feels too similar to the very behavior that they’re trying to un-train. If this is the case, you can also teach your dog to play structured games of fetch. Some dogs are natural retrievers, some are not. A good trainer can shape and build drive for this type of game if they effectively break down the sequence.

Training Tip #4: Go for hikes with your dog.

Man and his grey furry dog walking through the forest on a hiking trail together

Instead of taking this type of dog to daycares or dog parks, where they are likely practicing high arousal play, take your dog for hikes, to the lake, or on trips to the beach. The sights and scents of nature is great therapy. It can help recondition your dog to slow down, and relate to you in a healthier way. It’s physical exercise that generally promotes a calm state of mind, and it’s good for you too.

Training Tip #5: Condition your dog to a head halter.

I will be honest, I don’t love head halters. I don’t like putting head halters on dogs, because most dogs don’t like wearing them. That being said, dogs that jump and bite at people (even if the dog is well intentioned) can cause injury, and these situations need to be managed intelligently. If your dog jumps and bites with guests, with kids, or when you are out on a walk you can use a head halter while you work on generalizing their training to these scenarios. A dog that paws incessantly at their halter or muzzle is not properly conditioned to wearing it. Make sure you spend time helping your dog to feel comfortable with the head halter by feeding them meals while they wear it. The head halter should not create additional stress, frustration or anxiety.

Contact a trainer if you feel you are not able to tackle these challenges on your own.

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