"The Psycho-Dynamics of Impulse Control in Dogs"

Does holding a sit/stay deplete a dog’s mental energy?

Originally published in slightly different form on April 9, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.

Impulse Control in Dogs

Two intriguing studies came “across my desk” this week: one on fruit flies, the other on impulse control in dogs. Are they related? Yes. Sort of. The fruit fly study shows that most of the studies done on circadian rhythms may be invalid because they were done in a laboratory setting. When these very important test subjects (fruit flies) [1] are studied in a natural environment, their behaviors are very different. “The results were very surprising,” says Bambos Kyriacou, professor of behavioural genetics at the University of Leicester. “Flies simply did not do what they should. Instead of a siesta in the middle of the day, they became most active at that time. Instead of arrhythmic clock mutants showing defective rhythms, they showed perfectly good behavioural cycles, and instead of flies anticipating dawn as they do in the lab, they simply reacted to the changing light levels during the twilights.” (Science Daily.) Synergy vs. Isolated Behaviors One of the things Western science does well is isolate specific aspects of natural phenomena to see how they tick. We do this with bacteria and viruses to find ways to cure disease. We do it by isolating portions of DNA to cure genetic disorders. We do it with neurotransmitters to find ways to help individuals with psychological problems. The problem with this approach is that sometimes the things we isolate are working in synergy with other unseen or unaccounted-for agents. I think that research on canine behavior may be particularly susceptible to this. This brings us to a new study on dogs which suggests that dogs are more inclined to engage in risky behavior after they’ve depleted some of their mental energy by completing an impulse control task. I love studies like this. First, the idea that certain parts of the psyche expend energy to exert control over other parts comes directly from Sigmund Freud, [2] and as a neo-Freudian dog trainer, any study of Freudian dynamics that uses dogs as test subjects is like manna from heaven. Secondly, just two weeks ago, while teaching a miniature schnauzer to hold a long down/stay, I noticed that after he completed the command (which is partially an impulse-control task), he seemed to have less energy left for playing or harassing other dogs on the street, though the truth is he could have just been more relaxed. The Study’s Design Titled “Too dog tired to avoid danger: Self-control depletion in canines increases behavioral approach toward an aggressive threat,” (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2012), the study involved a group of various pet dogs who 1) were known to approach a friendly caged dog, 2) had been taught to hold an “out-of-sight” sit/stay for 10 mins., and 3) had also been trained to remain calm inside a crate. Each of the dogs had to either exert impulse control by holding a sit/stay while left alone for 10 minutes or not exert impulse control because they were secured in a crate for the same amount of time. To increase the difficulty of holding the stay, an electronic hamster was placed inside an “Adventure Ball,” and was activated to roll around the room at random during the impulse-control phase of the test. Once the dogs were released from the stay they were taken into another room and rewarded with a piece of hot dog and 30 seconds of praise. Then, they were walked into a room in which a barking, growling dog was caged. Each dog spent four minutes in the room with the dog, who is described as “highly aggressive” and “dominant,” though she was kept securely inside a crate, which was situated behind a play pen. [3] The dogs who’d been asked to hold the stay were more likely to approach the “aggressive” dog when left alone in the room with her. Lead author of the study, Dr. Holly Miller explains: “Our interpretation of the present results rests on the assumption that it is dangerous to approach a confined aggressive dog and that subject dogs were risking their safety by approaching.” Is this conclusion correct? It may be, at least partially. The paper includes a link to an old Youtube video (from 2008) showing that dogs who were required to hold a sit/stay showed very little interest in playing with a puzzle toy afterwards, while dogs who weren’t required to hold the stay were very engaged with it. However, as a dog trainer I have some reservations about the idea that the dogs who spent more time in the part of the room where another dog who was being held (securely behind two barriers,) is evidence that they were engaging in a risk-taking behavior. Was it an approach behavior? Probably. Was it risky? Probably not. The dog was behind a secure barrier. But what motivated their approach? The Synergy of the Stay Command I love teaching the stay exercise. It’s not just about impulse control though. It has the synergistic effect of increasing the strength and reliability of a dog’s recall (training lingo for coming when called). There are seven basic levels of the stay. [4] Each one is designed to successively build up the dog’s ability to override his impulse to “break” the stay so as to engage in an approach behavior, i.e, returning to the owner or handler. One of the hardest of the stay exercises is where the owner or handler tells the dog to stay, then disappears, which is exactly what was asked of the dogs in this study. Clearly, coming when called is an approach behavior. In fact, when it’s trained via the stay to incrementally increase the dog’s drive to connect with his owner or handler, it becomes an approach behavior on steroids (dogs tend to explode out of the stay and come running toward the owner or handler as hard and as fast as they can). What do I mean by the “drive to connect?” Freudian Dynamics in Canine Behavior Since the impulse study on dogs follows in the footsteps of Roy Baumeister’s work on ego depletion in humans,1 and since Baumeister based his work on Freud’s theories, I think it’s only natural to talk about the drive to connect as a form of cathexis, where an individual projects his or her emotional energy onto an object of attraction. Dogs do this all the time. They project their emotional energy onto their owners, onto other dogs, onto smells in the grass or on the sidewalk, onto squirrels, tennis balls, Frisbees, etc.

With all this in mind, I have no doubt that learning an impulse control task, when trained properly, can make a dog feel more relaxed. I get phone calls from clients all the time where they tell me that their dog was dead tired or totally zonked after a session with me. In many cases we hadn’t even left the apartment; we just taught the dog to control his impulse to jump up on people or bark at strange noises, etc. Yet I have to wonder if one of the reasons the dogs in this study showed a stronger tendency to approach the so-called aggressive dog (who, again, was kept safely behind two barriers), had more to do with the way holding the stay decreases levels of internal tension and stress (because of the way it relaxes a dog) while at the same time increasing a dog’s need to connect socially, particularly since the dogs in the study weren’t properly rewarded for holding the stay in the first place. Why do I say they weren’t rewarded properly? The stay is a form of delayed gratification. So what kind of gratification were these dogs giving up by sitting still for 10 minutes: the gratification of eating a piece of hot dog, or the feeling of re-connecting to the person who told them to stay then disappeared? Dogs are highly social animals. They have a relentless need to be part of a group. Did the dogs approach the strange, “aggressive” dog because a) their impulse control was depleted or b) because they were hungry to make a social connection, or c) a little of both? I have no doubt that exerting impulse control can deplete a dog’s energy (or some measure of it). But by isolating the dogs’ actions and categorizing them as approach behaviors, without considering what might have motivated that approach, and by using the abstract idea of a “reward” without giving any consideration to whether the piece of hot dog and 30 seconds of praise was, in fact, rewarding to the dogs, we’re left with more questions than answers. Come to think of it, that’s probably a good thing. It’s an integral part of how science brings us insight into how the world operates. LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook!

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1) The study of fly rhythms is thought to be important because the same 24-hour clock is found in almost all organisms, including some bacteria, but the genetic basis of it is practically the same among insects and humans, so [it] has important implications for the study of many health problems having a rhythmic component, including sleep disorders, the impact of work-related shift changes on the body, jetlag, even obesity and cardiovascular disease. (Science Daily.) 2) Roy Baumeister, who was the first psychologist to test Freud’s thesis in this area, writes, “The notion that volition depends on the self’s expenditure of some limited resource was anticipated by Freud. He thought the ego needed to have some form of energy to accomplish its tasks and to resist the energetic promptings of id and superego.” (“Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” 1998). Subsequent studies (some using fMRI data) have shown that acts of volition or willpower do seem to deplete some of the blood glucose levels found in the executive function (or impulse control) centers of the brain. 3) Dr. Roger Abrantes and others have said that a dog’s behavior should only be considered truly aggressive if it involves the actual biting of another dog, human, or animal. In this new way of looking at aggression, barking and growling may be considered to be “dominance displays”—depending on the nature of the circumstances—but dominance and aggression are not the same thing.

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