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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 tho


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