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Self-Control in Dogs Is a Limited Resource

Dogs that exert willpower in one task have a hard time doing so in the next.

Key points

  • Studies of dogs and humans suggest if one spends all their resources for restraint on one task, they have less self-control for later tasks.
  • In dogs, failure of self-control mechanisms can result in aggression, excessive barking, and an apparent inability to learn or problem-solve.
  • Research on humans suggests that following a period of self-restraint, if there is a meaningful reward, this seems to restore willpower.

New scientific data are beginning to demonstrate just how similar the mental processes are in dogs and people. This is the case, not only for emotional life and problem-solving but also for complex mental states.

For example, for both humans and canines, self-control, or willpower, is a fundamental ability. It allows us to direct our bodies and minds away from immediate temptation and toward other tasks. Psychologists would say that self-control relies on our ability to regulate urges, juggle competing goals, and sustain our attention on tasks. Failures in self-control are considered to be one of the central problems in human society and have been implicated in many phenomena including obesity, impulsive spending that may lead to massive personal debt, criminality, and even certain forms of substance abuse. In dogs, failure of self-control mechanisms can result in aggression, excessive barking, apparent inability or unwillingness to learn, and failures at problem-solving.

Recent data is now suggesting that self-control in both humans and dogs is a limited resource, and if we spend it on one task or problem, we have less of it to spend on tasks or undertakings that come afterward.

Let me give you an example that comes out of a beginner's dog obedience training class. It was around the third lesson in the session when a Dachshund and a mixed-breed Terrier had a bit of a confrontation involving barking at each other and lunging. The instructor, who was quite experienced and knowledgeable, decided that the dogs needed a timeout. The Terrier was placed a few steps away from the practice matting, toward the center of the room, and put into a down stay position. The owner was told to make sure that the dog held the down position. The Dachshund and its owner were ushered into a corner and seated with instructions that the dog didn't have to hold any position but had to remain on a loose lead near the owner. The Terrier was having a bit of a hard time holding its down position, and the owner had to re-issue the commands to "Down! Stay!" several times.

After about five minutes or so, both dogs seemed to have settled down and the owners were signaled to bring them back onto the matted area to continue the class. However, they were placed on opposite sides of the room. The Dachshund re-entered the class without any incident; however, the Terrier joined the line of students and found itself next to a Shiba Inu which gave it a hard stare. In response to that stare, the Terrier responded immediately and began lunging forward and barking and straining at the leash — now at this new target.

One might simply observe this situation and decide that the Terrier was aggressive, fearful, or had a personality disorder, which was why it could no longer control itself when it re-entered the class. However, Holly Miller and her team of research associates from the University of Kentucky in Lexington might have a different take on this.

Research on human beings shows that if people are required to exert some self-control, such as resisting the temptation to eat some fresh cookies for a period of time, then they will do less well on a broad variety of tasks that follow, such as solving problems or exerting some control over their impulses immediately afterward. Furthermore, after exerting self-control for a period of time, people become edgier and more likely to respond aggressively. The Kentucky research team has shown that the same thing goes for dogs.

In their first study,* dogs were shown a transparent plastic toy in which they could see and smell the treats that it contained. They were taught that they could get these treats by tugging on the toy. The dogs were then assigned to one of two conditions. The first was quite simple: namely, the dog was placed in a wire kennel crate and left there for 10 minutes with the owner out of sight. The second condition involved some willpower and self-restraint on the part of the dog. In this test condition, the dog was placed in a sit-stay position and the owner left the room for 10 minutes. If the dog began to move out of position, the owner returned, repeated the sit-stay command, and then again disappeared from sight.

Afterward, both groups of dogs were again given the toy from which they had learned how to get food, only this time it was set up so that no treats were dispensed, regardless of how they tugged at it. The idea was to measure how long the dogs would persist at this impossible task before they gave up. The findings were quite clear—the dogs who had to exert willpower by holding their position in the earlier part of the session rapidly lost their focus on the problem and gave up a lot more quickly.

I presume that some of you are thinking that this experimental result involves a problem-solving situation and not the kind of aggressive impulses I described earlier. However, this team of researchers extended their investigation in a subsequent study involving aggression**. Here, the amount of self-restraint required from the dogs would be a little bit more intense. The dogs which didn't have to exercise any willpower were simply placed in a wire kennel crate for 10 minutes with the owner out of sight, while the dogs requiring self-restraint were placed in a sit-stay position for the same amount of time. More willpower was required of the dogs sitting this time because, in front of them, there was a mechanical hamster in a transparent ball that wandered around the room. Again, the owners would come in and reset the dog if it started to move. The dogs in the kennel crate observed the same toy, but no self-restraint was required.

It is in the second task where aggressive responses become an issue. After the first task, the dogs were brought into the room again, only this time they found a wire kennel crate that contained another dog. Since dogs are highly social animals, they have a natural impulse to approach other dogs when they meet them. However, the dog that they were now presented with was highly aggressive and territorial and tended to respond with barking and growling whenever another dog came close to it. When faced with an aggressive animal, the safest course of action for a dog would be to use some self-restraint and resist their normal social impulses. In other words, they should choose to not go close enough to the aggressive dog to initiate a confrontation. The dogs that did not have to exert their willpower in the previous task responded appropriately and now had enough self-control left so that they stayed away from the hostile dog. The dogs who had to exert self-restraint in the previous task seemed to respond as though they had spent all of their willpower and impulse control resources in that they were much more likely to approach the hostile dog who was showing aggressive responses. The experimenters describe this as being "too dog-tired to avoid danger." Furthermore, studies with humans have shown that after a period of self-restraint requiring a lot of willpower, they were more likely to act hostile toward other people, perhaps because they no longer had the mental resources to control aggressive impulses that we normally try to hold in check. The same thing might be going on with the dogs here.

These results seem to explain the behaviors that I observed in the dog class. The Dachshund required no self-restraint since she could adopt any position she wanted and do anything she wanted as long as she stayed within leash distance of her mistress. The Terrier, who had to exert self-restraint to lie quietly, had spent all of his willpower-related resources on maintaining the down-stay position while the other dogs in the class moved around. This meant that when confronted with what might be considered to be an aggressive stare from the Shiba Inu, the Terrier had no reserve of willpower resources left to control his impulses.

Is there anything we can do to restore resources for self-control? There is no canine research on this, however, human research suggests that following the period of self-restraint, if there is a meaningful reward, this seems to change the situation enough so that a good deal of willpower is restored for the next task that follows. There is no published evidence that this will also work on dogs; however, the similarities in the mental processes of dogs and humans certainly make it worth a try. I hope that the team of investigators in Kentucky (or elsewhere) might continue such research and see whether this suggestion will actually also help in dogs.

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* Miller, H. C., DeWall, C. N., Pattison, K., Molet, M., &Zentall, T. R. (2012). Too dog tired to avoid danger: Self-control depletion in canines increases behavioral approach toward an aggressive threat. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 535 – 540.

** Miller, H. C., Pattison, K. P., DeWall, C. N., Rayburn-Reeves, R., & Zentall, T. R. (2010). Self-control without a self? Common self-control processes in humans and dogs. Psychological Science, 21, 534–538.

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