Exercising Self Control

September 15, 2009 at 5:46 am 4 comments

Exercising self control – it’s more than a metaphor.

An article published in 2007 in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Dianne M. Tice titled The Strength Model of Self Control  illustrates some fascinating and important parallels between self control and muscle strength. 

Self control is the measure of an animal’s ability to control its emotions and desires.  The ability to override impulse to obtain a delayed reward.  Self control is important in social interaction because it allows animals to alter their behavior to follow to rules and plans and to maintain social bonds and cooperate with others.

The strength model of self control postulates that:

  •  Self control is a limited resource.  When you use some of it you temporarily deplete your stockpile.
  • When your stockpile of self control is depleted, your ability to exercise it effectively decreases.
  • Your stockpile of self control can be restored by rest, nutrition and positive emotions.
  • If you use it regularly and well, your self control gets stronger over time.
  • Other executive functions appear to draw on the same set of resources that self control relies on.

So what does this have to do with dog training?  Everything!  Exercising self control is the basis of good social behavior, and most problem dog behavior is rooted in a lack of it.

How do you help your dog learn to exercise his self control?  First remember that it’s a limited resource.  If it’s late in the day and your dog is tired,  stressed out and / or has already worked hard to exercise his self control, give him a break.  He’s operating on a short fuse.  Don’t tempt fate by lighting it.

Second, make sure he gets regular mental exercise.  Letting your dog do whatever he wants whenever he wants allows his self control to atrophy.  To keep his self control strong, you need to do some training work with him every day.  It’s also important to maintain a consistent set of rules and boundaries because once these become habits,  they draw far less on his reserves.

Third, give your dog plenty of rest and good nutrition.  A weak, tired, thirsty or hungry dog is a stressed dog and stress depletes those vital self control resources.  If your home is loud and chaotic, give the dog a quiet place to rest and recuperate.  Feed him good quality food.  If he’s working hard or under a lot of stress, feed him twice a day.  Make sure he has plenty of clean, fresh water.

How do other executive functions factor into the equation?  The authors make an important observation about how executive function cross-training can increase our powers of self control:

Targeted efforts to control behavior in one area, such as spending money or exercise, lead to improvements in unrelated areas, such as studying or household chores. And daily exercises in self-control, such as improving posture, altering verbal behavior, and using one’s nondominant hand for simple tasks, gradually produce improvements in self-control as measured by laboratory tasks.

A lot of my clients tell me that they don’t want to bother teaching their dog those silly, time-consuming rules and formal obedience exercises.  They just want Cujo to stop attacking the mailman.  Now I have research that will help me explain exactly why they need to suck it up and do this work.  Training your dog to sit and heel accurately, refrain from jumping up on people, wait to be released at the door, navigate obstacles and other seemingly unrelated tasks can help him build up the self control resources he needs to resist the temptation of the mailman’s oh-so-tempting ankles.

Vohs et al. also point out that:

Not only self-regulation, but also acts of effortful choice and volition use the same resource.

This points to one of the great, and I think previously unrecognized, strengths of the Nothing in Life is Free or NILIF  program -  because when we implement it properly, we take away many of the dog’s opportunities to make choices, leaving more resources available for executing self control.  Think of NILIF as a self control savings account.

A 2007 article in the New York Times points out the importance of another kind of exercise:

One form of training, however, has been shown to maintain and improve brain health — physical exercise. In humans, exercise improves what scientists call “executive function,” the set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions.

[...]

How might exercise help the brain? In people, fitness training slows the age-related shrinkage of the frontal cortex, which is important for executive function. In rodents, exercise increases the number of capillaries in the brain, which should improve blood flow, and therefore the availability of energy, to neurons. Exercise may also help the brain by improving cardiovascular health, preventing heart attacks and strokes that can cause brain damage. Finally, exercise causes the release of growth factors, proteins that increase the number of connections between neurons, and the birth of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory. Any of these effects might improve cognitive performance, though it’s not known which ones are most important.

Based on these articles we find that a combination of regular physical and mental exercise and self-discipline combined with rest and good nutrition can help make you – and your dog – more cooperative, less reactive and better able to resist temptation.  Based on my experience – it works.

About two and a half weeks ago ONB foster dog, Charlie arrived at our place.  The first time I met him, he shrank back and gave me the evil eye.  The first time he met my husband, he threw a tantrum.  The first time I tried to leash him up and take him out of his kennel he tried to bite me.  He snarked and snarled at any dog that came near him. I put Charlie on a strict NILIF program.  The boy works to earn every crumb of food he eats, every toss of a frisbee, every iota of attention he gets.  He has to navigate obstacles – both mental and physical – in structured exercises every day.  He eats high quality dog food and there’s always clean water in his kennel.  He gets plenty of rest and exercise and I try to make sure I don’t to overtax his resources.

Today Charlie played off leash in a fenced yard with two calm, mannerly dogs.  He watched quietly and politely while strangers operated loud power tools (a chain saw, hydraulic splitter and large diesel truck)  just outside the fence.  And today, for the first time, Charlie decided he didn’t need a formal introduction to meet a stranger.  Without a formal greeting and without encouragement, Charlie crawled into our friend Dave’s lap, kissed his face then rolled over onto his back in blissful contentment.

Charlie’s issues aren’t fixed.  He needs to live in a highly structured environment to maintain this good behavior.  I still need to regulate the amount of stress he’s exposed to to prevent melt-downs.  He’s becoming obedient but he hasn’t had time to develop a set of good manners.  But he’ll get there.  Today we saw the real dog that had been lurking under Charlie’s suspicious, snarky exterior – and he is A Very Good Dog indeed.

FlyNavy
Charlie
“Throw, please?”
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Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs, rescue. Tags: .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Brenda in Mechanicsburg OH  |  September 15, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Very interesting post and amazingly universal. The concepts and strategies apply equally well a 40 something Mom, a preteen daughter and each of our dogs. I’ve been working on written goals for each dog and it’s interesting that achieving them will hing on increasing their self control even though the goals vary from becoming a working stock dog to therapy dog.

  • 2. bluntobject  |  September 15, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Great link; thanks!

    A lot of strength training philosophies revolve around training to failure. That’s probably not a good idea with self-control, but the places where the analogy breaks down are instructive as well.

  • 3. SmartDogs  |  September 15, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Very interesting. Is there somewhere you can point me on this?

    I think because dogs think so differently than we do, we run into a problem in that we can’t explain to them what we’re doing and why. I know as a person who’s worked a lot in high-stress jobs like expert witness and hazmat response, knowing ahead of time that I’m going to drive myself to that point – then take a break makes it bearable. Also the fact that *I* have chosen my own goal ahead of time and get to (usually) stop when I acheive it makes a difference.

    But still, I’d like to know more.

    Janeen

  • 4. bluntobject  |  September 15, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    The Wikipedia page on training to failure is pretty decent, if a bit brief. There tends a lot of useless flamage in the “train to failure” debates, and as far as I can tell it mostly boils down to “it works for some things, not for all”.

    I think the biggest gap between the strength-training analogy and anything involving dog (or human!) behaviour is that gyms and weight rooms tend to be pretty safe, controlled environments, whereas dogs’ self-control gets exercised in the real world. If I deadlift until I can’t move my legs, I can crawl over to my protein shake in the corner and whimper for the next fifteen minutes without too much worry. If I push my dog’s self-control past the point of failure, my postie has to worry about his ankles again.

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