Do Dogs Engage in Riskier Behavior When Their Self-Control is Depleted? Dogs Are Just Like Humans!

Do Dogs Engage in Riskier Behavior When Their Self-Control is Depleted? Dogs Are Just Like Humans!



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Image Credit: 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. Yes, similar to humans, dogs engage in some risky behaviors when their self-control is depleted, which could put them in danger.


Self-control research has shown that a person that is mentally exhausted is more likely to take risks and make impulsive decisions, more so 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 do this, Miller and her colleagues had ten family-owned dogs; 4 males and 6 females, visit her lab for two different test sessions. They ranged from 12 to 120 months of age. These dogs would begin by approaching a friendly caged dog, and had also been 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 m long and 0.9 m in height. A ProSelect 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 this time.(0.9 m long x 0.6 m wide x 0.7 in height.)This was 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, the electronic Zhu Zhu hamster was placed inside an Adventure Ball and was activated inside the room during the self-control depletion phase.

When the dogs completed the sit-stay session, they were individually brought into a room with a cage. To prevent any injury, the pen that was placed around the cage provided an additional distance of 0.3 m between the aggressive dog and the subject dog. The room, which was 3.9 m long and 3.8 m wide, had demarcated Scotch masking tape line marking zones. Inside this cage was a territorial 11-year old female Bull Terrier that growled, snarled and barked. They spent a total of 4 –minutes in this room, yet 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 dog’s actions for the 4-minutes, particularly taking note of where the dogs spent most of their time. A dog that selected to approach 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, this was considered the riskier option. Research in 2011 demonstrated that closer proximity to a confined aggressive dog, despite it’s 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, present a marked difference between an exhausted dog and one that was mentally alert- 59% compared to 42%. 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 or the mailman, dog bites can occur. Miller explains that dogs do 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 too need a break!

Snack Time

 Miller also concludes in a study with Roy Baumeister, social psychologist, Florida State University, that by providing dogs and humans with a boost of glucose, this would eliminate the negative effects of prior exertion of self-control on persistence. These findings provide the first evidence that self-control relies on the same limited energy resources among humans and nonhumans. It’s recommended that 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. “They were very skeptical, especially when I wanted to study the depletion effects of glucose in dogs.” Miller agrees with Baumeister that a resource does fuel the process of self-control. In this study, trained dogs had to sit and stay for 10-minutes, while another group sat comfortably in a cage, sitting and staying, but not being asked to do so. There was no self-control needed for this group. Both dogs then had to solve a puzzle following the “ sit-and stay “group. 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. “A sense of self doesn’t really matter here, “Miller said. “Dogs don’t have a sense of self, or an ideal self, as far as we know. Doing this type of experiment with dogs allows us to explain the results in a less complicated way, “says Miller.

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.”

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  1 comment for “Do Dogs Engage in Riskier Behavior When Their Self-Control is Depleted? Dogs Are Just Like Humans!

  1. kat richard
    January 2, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    I believe that dogs certainly do have a sense of self….Very much so.

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