What is the one thing that connects people with dogs? Believe it or not, it's the biological processes responsible for self-control.
Don't believe me? You're not in the minority. Sure, dogs can be cuddly, cute, and loyal companions. They might even learn to use the bathroom outside instead of in the living room (one of my two dogs has learned this). But can they actually help us understand human self-control processes?
This seemingly trivial question can have big implications. For years, psychologists have accepted the fact that self-control is a uniquely human phenomenon. If human and canine self-control processes rely on the same biological processes, it calls into question arguments that organisms without that hunk of meatloaf cortex between their ears can't regulate their impulses.
My colleagues and I recently investigated this question in a pair of studies published in this month's issue of the journal Psychological Science. We developed a paradigm that mirrored paradigms used to measure human self-control. This two-task paradigm involved the dogs completing an initial task that (by random assignment) did or did not require self-control, followed by a second task that measured self-control in an unrelated domain.
What activity, you might ask, involves self-control that can be used with dogs? Easy. Have them sit and stay motionless for 10 minutes. Half the dogs did that, whereas the other half sat in a kennel for 10 minutes. (Hint: If you want your dog to sleep well at night, have them sit and stay motionless for 10 minutes before they go to bed. Trust me).
After the doggies did the first task, they played with a toy that had food in it. They had played with the toy for a week prior to the testing session. Before the testing session, they had always been able to get the food out. You probably already guessed what we did just before the testing session. Yep, we rigged the toy so that the dogs couldn't get the food. We timed how long they persisted in the face of failure-a hallmark of self-control.
The results were dramatic. Dogs that exerted self-control initially, compared to the dogs that didn't, persisted about half as long on the second task. This is the identical pattern that psychologists find in human studies using the exact same paradigm.
But wait, it gets better. We did a follow-up study in which we gave half the dogs a boost of glucose after they did the first "sit stay (vs. kennel stay)" task. The other half received a placebo. Glucose is fuel for the brain. It's involved in all mental processes, but it is used in large quantities on self-control tasks. By giving the dogs a boost of glucose, we expected to eliminate their self-control deficits.
This is precisely what happened. Prior self-control exertion impaired later performance, but a boost of glucose undid this effect. Again, these results mirror recent evidence in the human literature.
So, the next time your dog chews on your shoes, gobbles up your pizza, or darts out of the front door to greet the UPS driver, try to keep your cool. Remember that the same biological processes that lead you to eat that third Krispy Kream Doughnut are involved in your pup's self-control failures.