Is Your Dog a Self-Control Superstar?
Most dogs (and people) could use some work on our self-control. We improve our self control with practice and appropriate reinforcement. Will it ever be perfect? That’s unlikely. With dogs—-and probably people too—-there is a huge genetic component to the desire or ability to exercise self control. So don’t get discouraged if your pooch isn’t always perfect. Just keep practising.
Some exercises for self control are “leave-it”, “drop-it”, sitting and lying down with distractions, recall with distractions, “off”, and “settle”. These are also some of the easiest to work into your daily routine if you can be a little creative (or are working with a trainer who can show you how—-not all train this way, but that’s another post).
We can often draw conclusions about animal behavior from human behavior because the neural structures of vertebrates (that's animals with spinal columns) are highly conserved, meaning that we are really, really similar. We can't make assumptions from human studies about animal experiences (we can't say "Fido bit because he was angry"), but we can talk with some confidence about some of their physiology, and use human psychology experiments to make hypotheses about other closely-related animals that can later be tested. Our similarities are why medication, for example, is tested on animals before it gets to humans.
The Marshmallow Test is that famous psychology experiment where a group of white, upper-middle class children were left alone with a white, upper-middle class marshmallow for 15 minutes. If they resisted eating it, they would get 2 marshmallows at the end of the experiment
The results of the study showed that the little human nuggets who delayed gratification had super-successful adult lives, measured by SAT scores and some other kinda arbitrary measures of "success". Ergo, self-control means your little sprout is gonna be a big o’ beanstalk one day if he or she can just learn to delay gratification.
However, follow-up studies have shown that the causal arrows may actually point in the other direction---privileged and smarter kids have better self control than economically poor and average intelligence kids. But it’s not an innate difference, it’s environmental. In a truly kickass follow-up to the follow-up study, some more white dude researchers at Rochester showed that kids placed with "unreliable" adults, who promise things that later don't turn out to be true, are way more likely to gobble that first marshmallow. This leads us to our animal pals. Self-control is vital for them too, particularly animal pals that are allowed out into the dangerous world or expected to perform independent work.
Dogs and horses in particular are capable of amazing feats of self-control. Some dog cognition experts place dog self-control on par with a human teenager! This might be going a little far, in my opinion... but I guess it depends on the particular dog and the particular teen in question. Either way, this leads to my first hypothesis about self-control: animals and people who perceive the person or situation providing reinforcement for self control as reliable in general may be more likely to show better self control in broader contexts.
Of course, to be a reliable provider of reinforcements, that means you have to 1. align your body language with your words, and 2. follow through with your “promises”, both of which may be deceptively hard to do. Assume your dog understands at least a handful of names for objects. They can also learn names and phrases that represent events, like “want to go for a ride?” means there is a car ride opportunity coming up. Don’t ask your pooch if he or she wants to go for a ride unless you’re 100% certain that you are actually about to go for a ride. Connecting phrases and words closely with the events that they imply will also help your dog learn what words mean.
What other ways could you improve your reliability with your pooch? Tell us in the comments!