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Do Dogs Engage in Riskier Behavior When Their Self-Control is Depleted?

Studies show that dogs may exhibit impulsive behaviors after practicing extended self control. By Claudia Bensimoun        

The fun and playful nature of dogs can lead to mischievous behavior. Often we are faced with a destructive scene of mischief, or we catch our dogs when they are up to no good, catching them in the act. This wayward behavior can try our patience, yet according to Dr. Holly Miller, PhD, from the University of Lille Nord de France, and her colleagues, these sometimes mischievous dogs have simply "run out" of self-control, just like humans do. Similar to humans, dogs engage in some risky behaviors when their self-control is depleted, which could put them in danger.

Ziggy exhibits self-control by waiting quietly in his soft-sided crate. Photo courtesy of Kat Fahle, Good Dog Sports


Self-control research has shown that a person that is mentally exhausted is more likely to take risks and make impulsive decisions than someone that is mentally refreshed. People exert self-control to avoid danger. When self-control is not used in certain situations and people behave impulsively, they are more prone to accidents. Miller wanted to find out if the same holds true for our canine companions. Her work is the first that proves that self-control depletion also has the same behavioral impact on dogs. When a dog is too tired to think straight, they are more likely to put themselves in situations that may cause physical harm.

To study this, Miller and her colleagues had 10 family-owned dogs (four males and six females) visit her lab for two different test sessions. They ranged from 12 to 120 months of age. These sessions would begin by having the dogs approach a friendly, caged dog. The dogs were trained to maintain an out-of-sight sit-stay for 10 minutes. The dogs had also been trained to remain calm and relaxed inside a cage for as long as six hours.


A bath mat was placed on the floor in front of an empty dog cage, which was 1.2 meters long and 0.9 meters in height. A ProSelect brand exercise pen surrounded this. The dogs sat on this mat during the self-control manipulation exercise. The same mat was placed inside a second dog cage of different measurements (0.9 meters long by 0.6 meters wide by 0.7 high). This exercise was held at the same location during the control condition. A mirror was placed strategically on the wall so that the experimenter could watch the dogs from outside the room through a small opening in the door. To increase the difficulty of the self-control depletion phase, an electronic Zhu Zhu hamster (a child's toy that resembles a hamster and moves around on wheels) was placed inside an exercise ball and was activated inside the room.

When the dogs completed the sit-stay session, they were each individually brought into a room with a cage containing a territorial 11-year-old female Bull Terrier that growled, snarled and barked. To prevent any injury, a pen was placed around the cage, providing an additional distance of 0.3 meters between the aggressive dog and the subject dog. The room, which was 3.9 meters long and 3.8 meters wide, had masking tape dividing the room into zones. Subject dogs spent a total of four minutes in this room, although they could escape to another room if they wanted to. Approaching the aggressive dog was the natural response for these dogs, yet it was also the riskier choice.

Miller and her colleagues recorded the dogs' actions while encountering the aggressive dog, particularly taking note of where the dogs spent most of their time. A dog that approached the aggressive dog was judged as being impulsive, and those that kept away were judged as being more wary. Although our canine companions are predisposed to sniffing and exploring, doing so was considered the riskier option. Research in 2011 demonstrated that closer proximity to a confined aggressive dog, despite its confinement, is associated with a greater risk to an aggressive encounter. (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2011)

Impulsive Canines

Miller's results, which were published in the Journal of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, show a marked difference between an exhausted dog and one that was mentally alert. The present research "provides evidence that the phenomenon of self-control depletion, once believed to be uniquely human, can be found in dogs. Using work in animals may provide a greater insight into the physiological and neurobiological processes that affect self-control," says Miller. 

There are many occasions when a dog's need to avoid danger is paired with a natural tendency to approach. Animals often override their natural impulse to approach so that they can remain safe, yet when dogs have limited self-control resources, they may make more impulsive decisions that will put them in danger, explains Miller. For example, when confined dogs are approached by children, dog bites can occur. Miller explains that dogs may have the tendency to snap at kids because their willpower may have reached a limit after listening to screaming kids all day. This possibly explains the 4.5 million dog bites in the US each year. Dogs need a break too!

Snack Time

Miller also concludes in a study with Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist from Florida State University, that providing dogs and humans with a boost of glucose would eliminate the negative effects of prior exertion of self-control. These findings provide the first evidence that self-control relies on the same limited energy resources among humans and non-humans. Giving a small snack could boost the willpower needed. A sugary drink for both our canine companions and ourselves provides the brain with fuel that it needs to harness unwanted behavior. "I thought that it was just a matter of glucose depletion - purely physiological," says Miller, who agrees with Baumeister that a resource does fuel the process of self-control. 

In a different study, trained dogs had to sit and stay for 10 minutes, while another group sat comfortably in a cage, sitting and staying without being asked to do so. There was no self-control needed for the second group. Both dogs then had to solve a puzzle following the sit-and-stay exercise. The caged dogs that were not forced to control themselves in any way tended to work on the puzzle twice as long as the "sit-and-stay group." 

To test the glucose effects on self-control, the dogs were given either a glucose drink or a placebo (a sweet-tasting liquid with no glucose). The dogs then worked through the puzzle. The dogs that were on the glucose drink did this for a longer period of time and with increased energy. Miller concludes: "My results prove that yes, self-control does correspond with diet. There's a reason that you should eat healthy foods that provide longer lasting sources of glucose. Your brain stays strong, and your resistance/self-control stays high. Foods like carrots and lean proteins take longer to break down, so they provide glucose for a longer period of time."

These studies have many applications in the world of dog sports. After a long day of exerting self-control at an agility trial, dogs may be more likely to exhibit their impulsive behavior on and off the course. The proper supplement may offset this problem. 

Consult your veterinarian when considering supplements.

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.


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