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Impulse Control: Puppy Zen (or To Get the Treat, Ignore the Treat)

August 23, 2012

Puppy Owners: Overworked and Underpaid

Socialization, puppy class, house training, manners, handling, obedience… with all the things to think about, it can be overwhelming to try to raise a puppy or help a new dog transition into a new life with you. It’s easy for one of my favorite general “building block” skills, impulse control, to get overlooked in the fray. Impulse control is a great foundation for future training, teaching a dog to “learn how to learn”, and is surprisingly easy to teach.

My preferred game for teaching impulse control is usually called “Puppy (or Doggie) Zen” or “It’s Yer Choice.” Puppy Zen is an extremely simple, fun and positive game that in addition to self-control teaches the puppy how to offer and choose between behaviors, builds trust and confidence between puppy and trainer, and naturally leads to teaching “Leave It,” another important skill every dog should know.



Puppies come hard-wired to experiment with trying different behaviors to get the things they want. Behaviors that are reinforced (that is, that succeed in getting the puppy what s/he wants) continue, and behaviors that are not reinforced (are not successful at getting the puppy what s/he wants) fade away.  This simple truth is at the heart of all reward-based dog training, but I find that Puppy Zen takes advantage of it in a way that makes it particularly easy to see results almost immediately.

You only need a few simple supplies: Yourself, your puppy or dog, and a good supply of small, high-value treats. For more advanced versions of this game, you also need a small bowl or food storage container. The game is easiest if you and your puppy are familiar with clicker training (or using a verbal marker), but can be done without it. I will describe the steps assuming that a marker is used, but if you are not using one then just substitute “treat” for “mark and treat”.

Please note that there are several steps to this game that increase in difficulty. There is no reason you need to rush through all of them. Practice for just 5-10 minutes at a time a few times a day regardless of how far through the steps you get, end on a good note, and always start briefly back at the beginning for a refresher before adding new steps at the next training session.


Elementary Puppy Zen

Start by holding several treats in your closed fist and hold it out for your puppy to investigate. Most puppies will sniff, lick, and/or paw at your fist. Do not give the puppy any instructions or direction; instead, simply ignore all attempts to get at the treats. As soon as your puppy backs off, mark and treat by opening your fist and quickly giving your puppy a treat using the other hand. Now that the treats are visible, if your puppy moves towards your open hand quickly close it again. When s/he backs off again, open your fist, mark and reward. Very quickly, most puppies learn that to get the treat, they must not TRY to get the treat – thus, Puppy Zen.

Once the puppy consistently ignores the closed fist, try offering your open palm with the treats in full view. If your puppy attempts to get the treats, simply quickly close your fist without saying anything. Do not tell the puppy “no” or otherwise correct him/her – the point of the game is for the puppy to freely choose his/her behavior based on the consequences of his/her choices.  When s/he backs off, open your hand, mark and reward. If you offer your open palm and your puppy does not try to take the treats, mark and reward.

These are videos of my dog Squash when he was about 12 weeks old playing Puppy Zen for the first time. By the time it occurred to me to record this, we had been playing for just 5-10 minutes, which illustrates how quickly puppies can pick up this game. Older puppies/dogs who have had little prior experience with training or who have been punished in the past for offering behaviors may take longer, but young puppies usually learn very, very quickly.

(Notice that Squash is already starting to offer eye contact as well as ignoring the food. Because by this age he already had a history of being rewarded for eye contact, he often offered it and did so on his own in this case, but it is easy to incorporate into the game and I will describe this later.)


High School Puppy Zen

Once your puppy has mastered the fist/palm, there are several slight variations on the same theme: Offer treats, treats are concealed (disappear) if puppy tries to take them, ignoring treats is marked/rewarded. As you move through these steps, your puppy will probably get better and better at it as s/he “gets it”. They include:

  1. Place several treats on the floor with your hand cupped over them; same game, different location. Mark and reward your puppy for leaving your hand alone. Then try taking your hand off to reveal the treats, re-covering if necessary or marking/rewarding when your puppy ignores the uncovered treat on the ground.
  2. Drop treats on the floor near your puppy; again, same game, but just a little harder as the motion of the treats will be extra tempting for your puppy (and you need to be faster and more coordinated to cover them!) Reveal, mark, and reward when the puppy ignores the treats.
  3. Place a bowl or food storage container full of treats on the floor, providing an even greater temptation. The basic rules are still the same: Cover the bowl with your hand as needed to prevent the puppy from taking treats, and mark/reward ignoring the bowl.


Graduate Level Work

Once your puppy has mastered these exercises, there are several additional skills that you can add to the game.

  1. Eye contact: Once your puppy is performing reliably, you are ready to change your expectations slightly to add eye contact. Although puppies who have already learned attention/eye contact may offer it on their own, many puppies and dogs will continue to stare at your hand or the treats even if they are not actively trying to take them. It is very simple to add eye contact: Simply do not mark or treat until your puppy looks you in the eye. You can either simply wait for your puppy to offer it or make a small noise or hand gesture to get his/her attention, then mark/treat the moment s/he looks at you.
  2. When your puppy is reliably giving you eye contact, you can try varying your body position and position of your hands. Holding treats in one or both fists, stand up and hold one or both arms out to the side, over your head, or even try moving or waving one or both hands. Mark and reward your puppy for making and maintaining eye contact instead of watching your hands. This is an excellent way to practice attention and focus. My dog Maisy is extremely good at this game precisely because she is an extremely distractible dog and we would play this game almost continuously under all sorts of circumstances – when it was not our turn in obedience classes to prevent her whining at and pestering other people and dogs, waiting at a stop light in the car, barking at dogs walking on the sidewalk outside or in a neighbor’s yard. At this point, to immediately get her attention I simply have to hold my cupped hand or fist out to my side and she immediately calms and slips into “Zen Mode”.
  3. Once your puppy has mastered the art of Puppy Zen, you can easily add a verbal cue. “Leave It” is commonly used. Simply practice the above exercises, saying “Leave It” before each repetition and your puppy will eventually learn to associate the words with the action.
  4. Vary the reward: Dogs do not generalize well, so in order for “Leave It” to apply to things other than food you will need to practice with desirable rewards other than food. Try using toys, socks, paper towels, shoes, or anything else that you don’t want your puppy to take without your permission.

Here are a few videos from two different trainers demonstrating Puppy Zen and Leave It, including inexperienced and experienced dogs and trainers.

And that’s all there is to it! To illustrate the power of Puppy Zen, here is a video of my dogs Maisy and (adult) Squash (all grown up) showing the profound level of self-control you can achieve with this simple but powerful game. Keep in mind that these dogs have been practicing this game for years under a wide variety of circumstances, and I am recording in a very low distraction environment – our home – so their performance is especially top-notch. Do not be discouraged if you do not achieve these kinds of results right away, but on the other hand remember that there is absolutely nothing secret or magical about either my dogs or my training skills – these results have come about simply from practicing, practicing, practicing Puppy Zen and all its additions and variations throughout their lifetimes.

Good luck, and happy Zen!

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