Self-control – how much does it cost?

A few years ago, Jenny Nyberg, a neuroscientist at the Department of Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of Gothenburg, wrote a very interesting article about what self-control costs. It was published by DogEductus, a Swedish dog training company focusing on online support for dog trainers, and we have now had the opportunity to republish it.

Within the dog world, we talk a lot about the dog having good impulse control. The dog must learn self-control and steadiness, and not just instinctively react to what he’d like to do in that very moment. He shouldn’t jump up on the table and steal our dinner just because it smelled so good; he shouldn’t run over to other dogs just because he felt like it in that moment; and he should remain in a certain spot if we ask him to. This is a very important thing for the dog to learn and to develop, but there is one thing to consider when we’re working with the dog’s self-control. It’s the fact that the dog can control himself, but it happens at a cost. I will explain more further down.

What do we mean when talking about the dog’s ability to control his impulses and self-control? Well, within human psychology it corresponds to an executive function called   inhibition. It is the ability to regulate our instinctive behavior (actions and thoughts) at the right time. This allows us to focus on the correct thing and also inhibits different risk behaviors. Research with humans shows that a person’s impulse control (inhibition) has an impact on many different aspects of that person’s life. A poorer impulse control in childhood is linked to poorer social abilities and lower school grades. It is also linked to risk behaviors such as driving under the influence and other criminal behaviors, as well as unemployment and even premature death. Even in dogs, lower impulse control is associated with several different problem behaviors.

Overall, a good impulse control is very important for both people and dogs in order to have as good a life as possible. But exercising self-control comes at a cost! Research shows that self-control is a limited resource and if we spend it on a certain task, there is not as much left to spend on tasks following after. An example of this is that people who have refrained from eating tempting treats have much shorter patience and concentration when trying to solve a more difficult task afterwards, than people who have refrained from eating less tempting things (in this case radishes). The people in the first group find it harder to solve problems, exercise new impulse control, become grumpy and might even become more aggressive. The same goes for our dogs.

Tug-a-jug toy

In a 2010 study, the researchers investigate this in dogs. They started out by letting the dogs learn how to get candy out of a Tug-a-Jug.

Then the dogs were divided into two groups:

  1. The dogs were left in a crate without the owner in a room for 10 min. This does not require self-control.
  2. The owner told the dog to remain in a sit, being left alone in a room for 10 min. This requires self-control.

In both cases the owner came back, and the dog got to play with a Tug-a-Jug again, but this time they had put treats into it that were too big to get out. They then measured how long the dog could work to get the treats out before giving up. And the results were very clear: The dogs that had been left with the task to hold a sit, exercising self-control, lost focus on the task and gave up a great deal faster than the dogs that were crated.

Group 1: In a crate (no self-control)
Tried to get treats out of the toy Tug-a-Jug for 141.2 sec

Group 2: In a sit (self-control)
Tried to get treats out of the toy Tug-a-Jug for 42.8 sec

The researchers then wanted to investigate whether dogs’ behavior during an aggressive threat could change depending on whether they had exercised self-control before or not. Therefore, a new study was made in 2012, where the dogs were divided into the same groups (groups 1 and 2) as before, with the increased difficulty that during the time they were left with the task to sit or were crated, a mechanical hamster rolled around the room in a transparent ball . This was to increase the degree of impulse control that had to be exercised. The dogs were then presented to another dog sitting in a crate, barking growling and displaying aggressive behavior.

Avoiding danger increases animal survival and reproduction. But at the same time there is a social aspect in animals and a natural curiosity and willingness to investigate. But, in order to not get hurt, an animal must push back the impulse to go forward and investigate something that’s perceived as dangerous. In other words, dogs should choose not to approach the aggressive dog in the crate and avoid confrontation. The researchers now saw that the dogs that did not need to exercise self-control because they were crated did just that; they avoided the angry dog and did not go forward. In contrast, the dogs who had exercised self-control and who had emptied all their impulse control resources went ahead and confronted the angry dog in the crate more often.

This experiment shows that if the dog has first exercised great self-control, its impulsivity increases which can result in risky behaviors. I think this is interesting to consider when training our dogs. If we’ve trained the dog to master his impulses, we should be aware that it will have difficulty in performing tasks afterwards. Since I do obedience with my dogs, this was an eye opener to me. The obedience program almost always starts with a long down with new, unfamiliar dogs, before the individual program. If the dog finds holding his down very challenging, he has already emptied his resources before the obedience program itself begins. I was also thinking about breaks during training. A dog waiting in his crate for his turn might have more energy left for training than a dog that holds a position on cue while waiting for his turn? There are many situations in everyday life too where this might apply.

But is there anything you can do then to “replenish” the reserves of self-control? In humans, it has been seen that self-control requires glucose (sugar) as energy in the body. All our mental processes in the brain require glucose and self-control lowers the level of glucose in the blood and makes different types of problem solving more challenging. But by drinking something containing glucose, one can improve the deterioration of problem-solving that exercising self-control creates. This effect is not achieved by drinks containing 0 calories. The researchers described above in the article from 2010 studied if this also applies to dogs. The dogs from both Group 1 (no self-control) and 2 (self-control) got to drink a beverage that either contained glucose or was glucose free (sugar free). After that they got to try to get the treats that were too large out of the Tug-a-Jug.

The dogs that the got sugar-free drink had poorer concentration and patience with the Tug-a-Jug task afterwards. They gave up faster if they had exercised self-control before. But the dogs who received a glucose drink had as much patience and tried to get the treats out of the Tug-a-Jug for as long a time, regardless of whether they had exercised self-control before or not.

The researchers summarize this experiment with that it’s possible to restore the dog’s ability to perform after exercising self-control by supplying it with glucose. They believe that glucose is necessary as energy for the brain to be able to work properly.

However, this conclusion has received some criticism. In 2012 there was an article on humans that showed that just gargling the mouth with a sugar-containing drink had the same effect. The drink did not need to be taken. It is now believed that glucose in the mouth activates special reward receptors in the brain that increase the motivation to keep working. It seems quite likely since other studies have shown that high impulsivity in dogs (and humans) is linked to a changed level of serotonin and dopamine, both of which are involved in the brain’s reward system. And sugar is a factor that activates our reward system, at least in most of us. This suggests that by having the dog perform rewarding and pleasant tasks after exercising self-control, you can restore the dog’s ability to perform again faster. To my knowledge, there have been no studies of this.

But neither we nor dogs have a total predetermined ability for self-control. Naturally, we must take our genes into account, but in addition to drinking sugar or performing other rewarding activities, the ability to inhibit impulses can of course be improved by exercise. In people, one can, through planned training of a certain type of self-control such as following an exercise program, also increase their self-control in other areas such as control of emotions or being on time.

Since this probably applies to dogs too, this means that if the dog is trained in for example showing self-control around food and treats, that effect can spill over into t the dog also getting better at preventing his instinctive impulses when meeting other dogs. But the training should be carefully planned and gradually be made more challenging, so that the dog’s reserves of self-control don’t run out. If it runs empty; you’ll simply have to fill them up again with something fun that activates the dog’s reward system!


Bray, MacLean and Hare (2014) Context specificity of inhibitory control in dogs. Anim Cogn. 2014 January; 17 (1): 15–31  

Miller, Pattison, DeWall, Rayburn-Reeves and Zentall (2010) Self-Control Without a “Self”? Common Self-Control Processes in Humans and Dogs.  Psychological Science   21 (4) 534-538

Miller, DeWall, Pattison, Molet and Zentall (2012) However, to avoid danger: Self-control depletion in canines increases behavioral approach toward aggressive threat. Psychon Bull Rev 19: 535–540

Sanders, Shirk, Burgin and Martin (2012) The Gargle Effect: Cleaning the Mouth With Glucose Enhances Self-Control.  Psychological Science 23 (12) 1470-1472    

Wright, Mills and Pollux (2012) Behavioral and physiological correlates of impulsivity in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris).  Physiology & Behavior 105 (2012) 676-682

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.