E283: Deb Jones - "The Art of Impulse Control"

What's the difference between impulse control and stimulus control? What about when we throw "zen" behaviors into the mix? Deb and I talk about all that and more in this week's episode! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today, I have Deb Jones here with me to talk about zen and the art of impulse control.

Hi Deb, and welcome back to the podcast.

Deb Jones: Hi Melissa. Thanks a lot for having me. I always enjoy being here.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To start us off, do you want to just share a little bit about you and your pups, for anyone who may not know who you are?

Deb Jones: Let's see. I've been around a long time. I've been a dog trainer for about thirty years now. I'm also a social and behavioral psychologist. I taught college full-time for twenty years. I've been retired now for four going on five years and I'm very happily retired. It goes fast. I have had and trained a variety of breeds, from Retrievers to Papillons to Shelties to Border Collies, and I've shown them in competition obedience, in rally, and in agility.

Right now I have Star, who's an 11-year-old Border Collie, and she's Miss Perfect. And I have Wizard, who's an 18-month-old Koolie, and he is feral and wild, but he's coming along. He's growing up little by little. And I also live with two Shelties, Tigger and Pixel. So we have an all herding-dog household at the moment.

In terms of what I've been working on lately, it's been mostly cooperative care work, mostly working on stuff for the FDSA certificate program for cooperative care. And that includes a lot of foundation zen work. That is our topic of the day. So that's me.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Let's start off by talking about some more of that terminology here. What is impulse control, and what are you talking about when you talk about zen work as it applies to dogs?

Deb Jones: Excellent question. It helps if we're all talking about the same thing at the same time. Impulse control is one of those fuzzy terms that has different meanings for different people, and people will argue about it, but they're talking about very different things.

In science, what we want to do before we even begin a discussion is develop an operational definition. That's a shared understanding of this is what the term means now, for this discussion. It might not always mean it, but it's what it means now.

My operational definition of impulse control is the ability to delay gratification when it's appropriate. Delay gratification is the central part of that when I'm thinking about impulse control. And the term "zen" comes into it to more highlight the underlying emotional and cognitive aspects of what we're talking about here.

We have the observable behavior, what the dog does. The zen is what comes in under the surface that we don't see. It has to do with being how relaxed they are, how thoughtful they are, how calm they might be. And so we have both those parts. We have the invisible part underneath, that's the zen part, that is running the behavioral part. And they have a reciprocal effect.

So that internal state, that's probably the thing I'm going to talk about most in this podcast, because I think it's the thing that we don't see, so we ignore it, and it's more important than people give it credit for. I'll leave it at that, and we'll come back to that more later, I think.

Melissa Breau: Sounds good. Thinking about that, are some dogs just naturally more zen? Is this something that all dogs can learn to be?

Deb Jones: There is definitely a genetic component to this whole idea of being zen. Some dogs are born calm and easygoing and relaxed, and so they they're easy dogs to live with. And other dogs are born intense, high drive, hardworking, busy, active, they're fun to train. They're harder to live with sometimes, but yeah, they have temperamental tendencies to go one direction or the other, just like people do, just that just as we do.

We can also see breed generalization differences. If you think about Border Collies, you probably think of more intense, hardworking, busy, active dogs than if you think about maybe a type of dog that's bred to be more of a lap dog, and you want the calm, easygoing, quiet kind of thing going on with them.

We know there are some generalizations about breed, but we have to be careful there because individuals can be different than what their breed leads us to expect from them. They're not all the same. You can have easygoing laidback Border Collies. You can have high-drive Shih Tzus. So you can have differences there. So we really need to know the individual and know their actual tendencies. But breed starts to sort of funnel us down and lead us in the right direction a lot of times.

They're bred for certain zen-like tendencies or not. But all dogs can learn to change their underlying states. They can learn to change their emotional states. Sometimes that just happens through life and through the way that we live with them. But sometimes not. Sometimes they're very, very strongly one or the other in terms of really pushing, high drive, active, or really couch potato calm, easygoing.

And so my goal is to figure out how to get them through to all the different states that they could be in, and to be comfortable in those states and moving between them, so going from active to stillness, going from excited to calm, going from focus to relaxed. All dogs will benefit from being able to do that. To me, that's the central benefit of zen work is to get them comfortable with their own emotional states and with moving between them.

And yes, all dogs can do it. Some are going to be more challenging than others. That's definitely the case. But I think of this as an arousal spectrum, so laid back on one end, intense on the other end of the spectrum. Dogs will fall somewhere naturally. Their genetics and their experiences up to this point in life will lead them to fall somewhere on that spectrum.

My goal is that they be comfortable anywhere on the spectrum, that when it's appropriate, they can move up or down, higher or lower, and that they can be comfortable doing that, even when it goes against some of their natural tendencies. So it's important for me to say that being zen doesn't mean just being less active. It means transitioning through the different states, and as I said, being comfortable in those different states of being. That, to me, is some of the central things I think about when I think about, "Does this dog need more zen work?" The answer is almost always yes, no matter what the case.

Melissa Breau: I feel like a lot of times when people are trying to work on this, they're trying to teach impulse control, or they're trying to get the dog to be more zen, and what they actually do is create frustration. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Deb Jones: Yes, I can. That's a big deal to me because that's exactly the problem. If we make them more frustrated, we are doing the opposite of what we want to be doing. We're making them more frantic and we're introducing conflict, and that's the last thing I want to do. So the way you go about it, the process you use, is really, really important. All methods won't lead to the same outcome, especially if we're concerned about the internal states as much as what the dog does, so how the dog feels as well as what the dog does.

If you start out teaching impulse control by just denying the dog access to something he wants — I have the resource and you can't have it until I tell you you can have it — for a lot of dogs, that's going to really increase frustration and it's going to increase behavior. They're going to try harder to get the thing they want.

Some dogs are really good problem solvers and some dogs are very, very persistent. When they want something, they really, really push for it. However, if you go along this path, they get more and more frustrated, but eventually, if nothing they do works, they stop trying. They give up.

That's what we call "learned helplessness." When you get to the point where nothing you do has an effect on the outcome, you give up. But this is not really a good thing, because going along with learned helplessness is — at least in humans, we know for sure — a feeling of depression because you can't control your environment. And that's not what I want in my dogs at all. I don't want them to give up because there's no hope and then to be unhappy about that whole process.

So we want to go about this in a different way. What I try to do in my zen training is to very, very quickly show them how they can get the resource they want. And I want them to be successful as fast as they possibly can, and I want them to become very comfortable with this training process, this zen training process.

What I'm going for is what we call "self-efficacy" in humans. Self-efficacy is learning that you can do it. You can successfully meet the challenges that are given to you. That makes you feel good about yourself. It gives people a very positive emotional state. I can solve problems. I can get what I want by working through challenges and puzzles. And so I want to teach through self-efficacy, not learned helplessness.

There's a huge difference there in what the outcome is going to be emotionally for our dogs and in how much they're going to enjoy the process. Self-efficacy is fun. It's good to be successful. It makes you more confident. It makes you more comfortable. That's what we're going for. So I think that's the main difference between the way I approach it and the way some other people might approach this kind of training.

Melissa Breau: We've talked about impulse control, and we've talked a little bit about self-efficacy, and we've talked a little bit about zen. I think the other term that maybe people get confused or associate with all this stuff is stimulus control. What do you see as the difference between impulse control and stimulus control?

Deb Jones: Very good question. First of all, I use the terms "impulse control" and "self-control" pretty interchangeably. We could argue that there are some differences there, but for the purposes again of this discussion, I'd say those are pretty much the same. And I want that internal or self-control in my dogs.

Anything that's internally controlling your behavior is impulse control. It's chosen, it's voluntary. We do it because in the past we've learned that it works to control ourselves better than to do something else. That comes from an understanding that delaying gratification is going to work out. It's going to be in your best interest. That's where impulse control comes from. When we use the term "stimulus control," we're talking about something in the environment that controls behavior, something external to you that controls your behavior. We learn that different stimuli, different things that happen, lead to different events, and we respond to them.

The easy example for stimulus control are traffic lights. Red means "stop," green means "go," yellow means "go as fast as you can and try to get through the light." That's not what it's supposed to mean, so yellow is terrible stimulus control. Yellow lights are the opposite of what they actually intended, but red and green work pretty well most of the time. Not all the time, but most of the time we've internalized this idea. But that light color has an effect on us.

Thinking of some stimuli that are typical that have an effect on my dogs, I'd say the garage door opening is a huge one in my house. Garage door opening means somebody's coming, and then there's lots of excitement and explosive barking because again I live with a whole bunch of herding dogs. And there's howling as well. So the stimulus of the garage door opening controls their actions and their vocalizations. I could change that, but it's a lot of work, and so I haven't, but I notice it.

We're controlled by all kinds of things in the environment. One other example I thought of is that I have to monitor my blood sugar levels, and I have set up alarms: one for when it's too high, one for when it's too low. It's gotten to the point now, as soon as I hear that low alert, I know immediately what I have to do. I don't even think about it. The alert controls my behavior and it says, "You need to have sugar right now." You'd think that's a good thing, but it's really not a good thing at all times, but it does control my behavior. That's an external stimulus that's leading me to behave in some way.

So think about that difference between internal and external. I can control my dog's behavior. I'm the external stimulus if I tell them what to do. If they choose what to do, then it's impulse control or self-control.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. When you actually are trying to work on some of this with your dogs, how do you introduce these concepts? How do you teach this?

Deb Jones: Oh, I have a lot of things that I do. I developed a series of zen exercises and I start them the moment I get my puppy, or dog, and I continue them throughout their lives, just because they're fun little games for us to play together, but they really have a lot of benefit.

The main goal of it is my dogs learn a couple of marker cues that tell them when they can have something they want and how they'll get it. I'll give it to you or you can go get it yourself. That's the simple way to talk about it. And if they don't get one of those cues, you can't have the thing. It's not available to you at this moment. So I start exercises to teach the marker cues and to teach them how to respond appropriately to those cues. They're going to get something that they want.

From there, I want to make sure that all the exercises I teach are in a win-win scenario. I want to make it so easy for my dogs to figure out how to get what they want and they're successful right away. That gets them to buy into this whole concept that, "Oh, if I just wait a second, if I just delay a tiny little microsecond, I get what I want." And so there's a big payoff coming.

I start by reinforcing this tiny little moment of stillness that we get. In some dogs it's hard to even see that moment of stillness, but we can work our way into it. We want them to just wait a smidge to get what they want. Once we can get that — and my expectations are incredibly low in the beginning — but once we can get that, then success builds on success.

Once they learn that waiting for me to tell them what's going to happen is actually the best course of action, then we can really raise challenges pretty quickly. They get the idea. They get the concept. So we start out very low, low expectations, low criteria, so they can be successful.

As we go along, we raise the challenges in small increments, and that's where being a good trainer comes in. That's where the trainer skill comes in, because I have to know, when I'm working on zen stuff, is it the time to make things slightly more difficult. Is this the time to stay at the same level and continue building here, or is now the time when I really need to go back and do some easier repetitions because my dog is having trouble. That's the trainer skill. That's the thing the trainer has to learn, and it's really amazing that when we get it right, they get it right. When we figure out how to read what they need in the moment in a zen training session, probably in all training sessions, things go really, really well from there.

So understanding that challenge level with each of the exercises is really, really important. We start with marker cues. We work on bowl exercises, zen bowl exercises, that have a lot of different variations. I work on hand exercises where food or toys come out of my hand. We work on reinforcers being placed away from us and work on control around them as they get at a distance. And all of this, in controlled setting, becomes the groundwork for what's going to happen in real life, when there are really things out there in the world that they want, and we want to be able to control their access to them. We want them to think before they do.

That's a really quick look through, a quick talk through, the way that I set it up, but I have a plan. I always have a plan. I have an order. I have a way things go from easiest to slightly more difficult to get through all the exercises.

Melissa Breau: Your webinar next Thursday addresses all of this in a lot more detail, but can you just tell us a little more about what you cover in the webinar and maybe who might be interested in attending?

Deb Jones: Sure. There's definitely a lot more detail in the webinar. I talk about both the science underlying the idea of impulse control and zen work, as well as the art of being able to do it well as a trainer, because I think that that's really key.

As a trainer, if you want to understand why this works and how this works, I talk about that theory in the webinar in the beginning stages of it. I talk about the reasons that we want to do it, why it's important, and the scientific theories that help us to be successful. Because it's like anything — if you understand how it works, when you run into problems in training, and you will, because we all do, you'll know what to do about it. You'll know how to fix the problem. If you don't understand the underlying theories and ideas and concepts, you'll be stuck and you won't know how to proceed. So I want to give some basic scientific background. It doesn't get heavy in the science, but I do introduce some of the basic ideas there so you could troubleshoot on your own when you try to follow steps and those steps don't necessarily work.

I go into talking a bit about physiological arousal, how that works, dogs that get high, dogs that get low, how we're trying to alter or moderate those levels of arousal, and also about why we want cooperative training, so the idea of avoiding frustration and conflict, and getting that buy-in so that our dogs are like, "Oh, I want to do this." If my dog doesn't really want to do it, I'm not doing it right, because it should be something that they see as opportunity to gain reinforcement rather than me standing in the way and denying reinforcement. So I want them to see it as an opportunity to get what they want.

I'll talk about those kinds of things, the art of training — as I said, it's execution of the trainer. The way that you do it makes all the difference in the world. You can follow all the steps, but if you're not reading your dog well and you don't have an eye for details, you can go wrong. So I'll talk about that and have some videos that show … I say I make repetition-to-repetition training decisions, so you have to adjust and adapt very quickly. And I cover a couple of my foundation exercises that I do for zen work in the webinar as well. So there's a theory part and an application part to it. And I think whether or not you have a dog right now that you think needs more control, or more inhibition or not, it's a good foundation to have because it can help you with all your training.

Melissa Breau: Is there anything else that listeners need to know about the webinar, or even the topic broadly, to help them decide if they want to join us?

Deb Jones: As I said, I think it's a good foundation for everybody. I don't think that you have to have that wild, out of control, frantic, high-drive dog to benefit from the idea of zen work. I think every dog needs zen work, even the ones that you think are really easygoing.

And the idea that success is in the little details, and so the more you, as a trainer, understand, the easier you'll make it for your dog to learn. And that's our goal. Let's make this easy for the dog. If we do our part, it's amazing how the dogs just follow right along and do their part too, but we have to do our part right. So things like this webinar are part of the trainer doing your part first, get your education, understand what this is before you jump into exercises that you're not executing properly. Get a good foundation in it first, before you start to add your dog to the equation.

Melissa Breau: Final question: If I asked you to sum up our conversation today, like one final piece of advice or a last takeaway that you want people to walk away from this with, what have you got?

Deb Jones: This is always a hard question. I said so many things. What's the most important thing to walk away with? I'm going to go with that zen is internal as well as external. It's so much more about what's going on inside the dog than what you actually see them do or not do.

We need to become better at understanding that, and observing carefully so that we get the right internal state, we get the internal state we want, along with the behavior that we want. And so I'd say, to me, that's probably what I would hope would be the biggest takeaway — that there's a lot going on under the surface we can't see, yet we still have to work with it in order to be successful. That's what I got.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Deb.

Deb Jones: Thanks, Melissa. I always enjoy it.

Melissa Breau: Me too. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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