As humans, we use impulse control every day. Having a well developed impulse control can keep us happy and healthy. The same goes for dogs. We can help teach them the concept of impulse control, so that they can be polite, healthy members of our families.
There is lots of advice, training games, and ideas for training impulse control in dogs out there, but what about the science behind impulse control in dogs? Some dogs will eat and eat without stopping, jump up on guests like monkeys, or even bite without much thought. Why do dogs seem to have less impulse control than humans, how do dogs brains work when they employ self control, and can they actually learn self control?
Let’s Talk Science
As humans, we exhibit self control constantly. We have fairly large prefrontal cortex lobes that allow us to not act on our instinctual feelings all the time. This is the ability to think about long-term goals and delay that instant gratification of a behavior. For example, you are in college working towards your bachelors degree, but your friends invite you to a party every night. While that sounds like fun, you think about that long term goal and exhibit self-control by saying no to partying every night.
Some of us have trouble with delaying gratification and practicing self-control. One study says that that’s because we’re self-centered and not thinking about our future selves! It makes a lot of sense. You may have a goal of reaching a certain health goal, like fitting into skinny jeans. Instead of exercising and eating healthy you reach for that piece of chocolate cake every night. You are thinking about how delicious that cake is now and not the health of your future self (I personally lose any sort of self-control when it comes to chocolate cake). But how does impulse control work for dogs?
My dog Larry has very little ability to control his impulses. If you put food in front of him, he slurps it down like a starved dog (which he was on the streets of Kansas City). When you put food down in front of me, I have more control because I’m able to put a napkin in my lap, pick up my fork, exchange words with my dining partner, and leisurely eat my dinner. The point is, that humans (excluding disorders) have more ability to control their impulses than animals.
It was thought that the difference between self-control abilities in humans and non-humans was the sense of self. However a study done with dogs, showed that a sense of self, which is unique to humans, isn’t really the determining factor at all. In fact, humans and non-humans have a more similar biological process while exhibiting self-control than realized. This study called “Self-Control without a ‘Self’?” reports that dogs and humans ability to have self-control is affected by our blood glucose levels. They ran two different experiments:
- Test the ability of a dog to show impulse control after already performing a task that required control. The results were that the dogs persisted less on the second task than dogs that were not required to exert self-control on the first task.
- Test the ability of a dog to show impulse control on a second self-control task after drinking a glucose enhanced drink. The results were that after drinking the glucose liquid, the dogs performed better on the second task than the dogs who did not receive the glucose.
This study reveals that when dogs use impulse control there is a biological effect that results in a decrease in glucose, which than makes it harder for them to employ impulse control again shortly after.
There have been studies that have gotten images of dogs brains with an MRI that show the prefrontal lobe lighting up when employing self control. First, they were able to train the dogs to stay still in the MRI machine, than actually do a task (or not do a task-impulse control) in the machine, and then get a picture of their brain. Science, kids, is pretty amazing.
Even though humans and dogs are using similar locations in their brains for self control, dogs have smaller brains than humans, but their prefontal lobes are relatively small compared to their brain size. That doesn’t give them a lot of brain space for some serious self control. It doesn’t seem that dogs are really set up to have strong abilities to exhibit self control, but yet, we can absolutely teach them!
Teaching Impulse Control
It’s actually been found that dogs have similar abilities in brain function to small children (2 years olds), which means that we can use similar techniques to teach them how to use impulse control! A depletion in a dogs resources and the capacity to which they can learn is definitely something we can take into account when we are training impulse control in our dogs.
Using short training periods with quick tasks while teaching them impulse control will be better than asking for huge uses of impulse control in succession. An example of a small, short task would be asking for multiple waits for some of their kibble in a 5 minute period, versus asking for multiple comes while they are off leashing sniffing and chasing squirrels (they might come the first couple of times, but it’s going to get tougher for them to say no to squirrels on that walk unless you are replacing that glucose).
And it’s important to teach this skill not just so they have polite manners, but so that if they get loose, you can call them back to you so they don’t get hit by cars, or they can use bite inhibition. When you teach impulse control, remember, you are teaching your dog a concept and you can generalize it!
Some of my favorite games to play are “It’s Yer Choice” from Susan Garrett and “Whip-it” from Absolute Dogs. There are lots of ways to teach impulse control to your dog and I hope that you do because it will help keep them safe and happy!