Teaching Self-Control and Coping

Goal: The pup has the end goal of helping someone with visual impairments. Throughout their career the puppy will face a variety of distractions every single day. Therefore, the pup needs to learn how to behave and exhibit self-control in all situations without being told what to do by their handler.  Remember, their partner might not be able to see the distractions that are in the environment.

Dogs are naturally observational animals, and they are aware of their environment. It can be very difficult to teach the puppy when they are distracted. Oftentimes, when you’re alone with the pup their behavior will be much different from when you are in public and there are distractions. Remember that guide dogs aren’t just expected to behave in the home. They need to have superb behavior in public as well so they can guide safely.

While you are raising them, the pup should be exposed to many distractions and learn how to ignore them. You might see a variety of reactions ranging from fear to excitement to curiosity. The job is to observe and learn how the pup reacts in order to help them overcome the reaction they’re exhibiting. Repeating exposures will help the pup regard the distractions as normal and an everyday sight.

Distractions should never be an excuse for poor behavior. The pup should behave the same way whether a distraction is present or if they are in a calm environment. Distractions should be used as training tools and learning opportunities. If the pup is responding to distractions do not ignore or excuse their behavior. Setting the pup up for success as they grow and mature will only make facing distractions easier down the road. Sometimes, a pup will be become too distracted to behave properly. It is best to leave the situation and try again later.

Seek out distractions the puppy can handle, and only progress or leave the situation when the puppy has calmed down and understands the behavior that is expected of them. The more you reward the good behavior they more they will offer that behavior to seek out the praise and approval. Remember, a strong leader is one who praises often; dogs seek out a leader who gives boundaries and guidelines to them. When the pup chooses to listen to you instead of engaging with the distraction it shows that they are using self-control, and you are being an effective leader. 

Follow these tips to avoid poor behavior near distractions:

  • Pay attention to the pup.
    • Watch their body language for any cues that they are becoming excited or distracted.
      • Perked ears, a tense body, and lowered head usually relay that the pup is focused on something.
      • Whining, vocalizing, or barking.
      • Lunging, pulling, or leaping toward distractions.
    • Try to redirect a poor behavior before the pup gets out of control.
      • Say their name, ask them to focus on obedience, or do a quick about to leave the situation.
      • Anticipate poor behavior in stimulating environments and be ready to leave, correct, or redirect.

Teaching the puppy self-control

Goal: A puppy that exhibits self-control in exciting, new, or very stimulating situations. Guide dogs need to exhibit self-control in every distracting or tempting situation when they are working. By communicating what is acceptable behavior and how you expect the puppy to behave, you will teach them how to control themselves and listen to their handler.

Marker training should always start in artificial scenarios. That means you have set up the situation and you can control many aspects of the environment. Then, once the pup starts learning self-control in artificial scenarios you can start using marker training out in public.

Marker training lets the pup make the decision. You will not tell the pup to "leave it", tell the pup "No", or give them a leash correction. You will wait for the pup to make the decision to ignore the distraction and walk past it.

Artificial Scenarios

Goal: Artificial scenarios give the foundation of the desirable behavior in a controlled environment. In the beginning, you will practice these at home. This exercise communicates to the pup that they should ignore varying distractions.

  • Identify a quiet area that isn't stimulating in or near your home like your living room or backyard.
  • While the pup is in their crate, place 1-2 distractions in the area like a bowl of food, interesting toy, another non-reactive dog on a tie down. You want items that you know the pup will show interest in.
  • Take the pup out of the crate and walk towards the area with the distractions. While you are walking to the area, mark their loose leash walking and attention to you. We call this action "pre-loading". You are communicating to the pup that you want these behaviors and actions to continue as you keep walking.
  • If the pup notices the distraction and adds tension to the leash, stop walking. Wait for the pup to look up to see why you stopped walking.
    • Do not tell the pup "Leave It", "No", or give them a leash correction. We want the pup to make the decision to ignore the distraction
    • If the pup adds tension for more than five seconds, turn around and take a step back. You got too close, too soon.
  • When the pup relieves the tension say "NICE" and deliver the food reward.
    • This movement might be slight-a step back, sit, or shift back.
  • Now, you will walk parallel to the distraction instead of towards it. This prevents the pup from getting too excited or distracted when moving past the distraction.
  • Continue taking small steps and marking the pup's decision to ignore the distraction
    • The pup might offer a sit, eye contact, or loose leash walking. They can look at the distraction, but we do not want them to act impulsively and pull towards it.
  • When you are far enough past the distraction that the pup can't turn around and reach it, throw a party! Give a small handful of kibble, pets, and an on-leash playtime.

Continue practicing artificial scenarios throughout the time you are puppy raising. Get creative-bring items in public with you, use items in the environment like trashcans, food on a low table, utilize friends that will distract the pup for you, bouncing balls, dog parks you're walking by, etc. The scenarios can become more difficult and will help the pup make the right decisions in real life scenarios!


Teaching the pup to be comfortable and confident in all situations

Goal: The puppy should be accepting of all sights, sounds, smells, and objects without becoming frightened, distracted, or overwhelmed.

Guide dogs go everywhere with their partners; they need to accept things a pet dog normally wouldn’t see on a regular basis. They will see unusual people, travel in public transportation, and be with their partner for everyday situations.

Understanding and responding to behavior and body language is important to help support the pup and help them feel comfortable in every situation they are introduced to while you are raising them.

Teaching the pup how to remain calm in new situations

The first thing to do is observe the pup’s body language. What are they telling you? Are they scared, distracted, excited, or overwhelmed?

  • A scared or overwhelmed pup might exhibit the following:
    • Lowered tail
    • Ears pushed back to the side
    • Worry lines on their head
    • Panting when approaching new exposure
    • Lowered body
    • Hesitant or slower pace
    • Coping by distracting themselves by sniffing or scratching themselves
  • A distracted or excited puppy might exhibit the following:
    • Higher tail set
    • Alert, perked ears
    • Vocalizing such as whining or barking excitedly
    • Inability to focus on you
    • Tense, forward body posture
    • Pulling or lunging

If the puppy is afraid, take several steps away from what is scaring them until their body language returns to normal again. It is best not to acknowledge the change; feeding into their anxiety might make a pup even unsure of the situation. Remember to be a confident leader.

  • Give the pup time to observe the situation from a safe distance.
  • Try approaching from a different direction.
  • Never force the pup to approach something they are fearful of – let them decide to move closer. You might have to encourage them some, but you want it to be their decision.
  • Keep an upbeat, positive attitude.
    • Use a happy voice and relaxed body language.
    • Touch or reach over to the object to encourage the pup to investigate.
  • Praise the pup for any effort to investigate and become comfortable.


If you have any questions regarding self-control or coping, please reach out to your advisor or area coordinator.