Why Labeling Behaviors as “Impulse Control” Problems is NOT a Good Idea

More and more often we are seeing diagnostic labels from human psychiatry being “borrowed” and applied to pets and pet behavior problems without any scientific or even rational reason for doing so.  Applying a “fancy” label to a behavior doesn’t convey a greater and more in depth understanding of the behavior.  It’s instead another example of the nominal fallacy that we’ve given lots of examples of in our BEN webinars.  This fallacy is simply the mistaken belief that if we’ve named something then we understand it.

This is definitely the case with use of the term “lack of impulse control” being applied to all sorts of unwanted behaviors dogs display.

Human psychiatry talks about impulse control disorders or ICDs.  ICDs are not well understood or characterized.  They share characteristics with other disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorders.  An article from Psychiatric Times makes clear that one of the hallmarks of ICDs is that they are characterized by difficulties in resisting urges to engage in behaviors that are excessive and/or ultimately harmful to oneself or others. The common component in definitions of ICDs from several references is that they are maladaptive and result in harm to someone.

In addition, ICDs share other core characteristics: (1) repetitive engagement in a behavior despite adverse consequences; (2) diminished control over the problematic behavior; (3) an appetitive urge or craving state prior to engagement in the problematic behavior; and (4) a hedonic quality experienced during the performance of the problematic behavior.  Because of this, ICDs have been characterized as behavioral addictions.  Examples include compulsive gambling, kleptomania, and hair pulling.

We should emphasize that in human medicine impulse control disorders refer to abnormal behaviors.  These are disorders  – psychopathology – NOT normal behaviors.

Let’s compare those characteristics to how the “impulse control” label has been applied to unwanted behaviors dogs display. In general, dogs are said to have problems with impulse control whenever they engage in behaviors owners don’t want them to do.  Counter surfing has been said to occur because of a lack of impulse control.  Dogs that are easily aroused or excited are said to suffer from a lack of impulse control. Aggression has been said to be an impulse control problem.  Pulling on leash, lunging at other dogs, and not coming when called have all said to be the result of a lack of impulse control.

Looked at from the other side of the coin, so called impulse control problems are claimed to be dealt with by teaching the dog not to do what he wants to do, learn to control his “impulses” – and do what the owner wants him to do instead.   Impulse control in dog training is equated with self-control or probably more accurately responding to the owner’s directions.

What do dogs labeled as having a “complete lack of impulse control” do? For the most part, just a whole constellation of normal, albeit usually unwanted or annoying, behaviors.    If you Google that phrase, here’s what you’ll find.

They jump on people when greeting them, show equivalent behaviors when greeting other dogs, grab food when offered by hand, bark at passersby out the windows, and more.  And on websites that talk about working with so called “impulse control” problems – the solution is always to TRAIN the dog.

Various recommended training solutions include teaching the dog to sit, go to a mat, wait to take a treat until given the OK, ignoring the dog until he is quiet, rewarding not jumping up, etc.  In other words eliciting and reinforcing alternative behaviors.  Case descriptions on these websites mention that the dogs often have had little experience having to wait to get what they want.

Do those sound like pathological behaviors?  Not to us.  They are normal, common behaviors dogs who haven’t been trained show, dogs that have spent considerable time outside without learning how to fit into a family show, and dogs whose inappropriate behaviors have been reinforced either purposefully or inadvertently.

Compare those to the abnormal behaviors we mentioned above that are associated with impulse control disorders in human medicine.  By labeling these problems as due to a “lack of impulse control”, the implication is that we are dealing with dogs that have a mental disorder rather than a lack of training.     That’s a dangerous and in our opinion inappropriate road to go down for what should be obvious reasons.

There is no value to invoking complicated terminology just for its own sake without a clear benefit for doing so.  There is no clear benefit here.  And there are clear benefits for using descriptive terms instead.

Which of the following provides more information?

  •                 The dog has an impulse control problem
  •                 The dog immediately jumps on people who enter the house despite the owners’ attempts to stop him.

Borrowing diagnostic terms such as “impulse control” from human literature without any objective, rational, or even practical reason for doing so is not an example of applying good science and scientific methodology to dog training.  That’s why we’ll never tell dog owners their dog’s behavior problem is due to a lack of “impulse control”.

If you want to learn more about the research behind impulse control in people and related research about dog behavior, you’ll be interested in the webinar we did for our Behavior Education Network members on “Reactivity, Impulsivity, AD/HD and PTSD in Animals: Fiction, Fad or Fact?”

BEN’s the most affordable way to get monthly scientific training that includes practical application.  Learn all about it at www.BehaviorEducationNetwork.com

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field