Don’t Overwork Your Self-Control – Good for the Dog; Good for You

If you read a typical woman’s magazine, you’d think we have an endless supply of self-control.

Lose weight. Exercise more. Get ahead at work. Raise your kids to be superstars. Treat your spouse better.

If you work hard enough, you’ll soon be perfect.

Or will you end up even worse?

Dog Self-Control at the Vet

Honey and I just got back from the vet.

She’s such a good girl. But it’s still not easy.

Honey the Golden Retriever and Mike sit on the beach.

I don’t know what studying Spanish and eating healthy snacks has to do with self-control. I’m the one lying still when there are balls that need to be fetched.

We wait for the young, active dog to go in the door and sit down before we enter. Honey sits and stays as the dog goes to the exam room. She has to ignore the cats meowing in their carriers. And the office staff are busy so she can’t solicit lovies.

In the exam room, Honey sat patiently as the doctor examined her ears and teeth. She didn’t complain when she was microchipped.

By the time we left, Honey had exerted a lot of self-control. Did she have anything left?

Human Self-Control at the Campground

A raccoon must have wandered off with my brain.

I remembered to write down the addresses of family I wanted to send postcards to. I remembered to pack stamps. I remembered to buy post cards.

When I finally remembered to write out the postcards, I had lost the addresses. When I found the addresses, I had misplaced the postcards.

And it wasn’t just postcards I had trouble keeping track of. During my entire week of camping, I was a mess.

Why?

I think I had exhausted my self-control.

The most important things I have to keep track of when camping are my contact lenses and glasses. I have very poor eyesight. My vision is 20/180. To put that in perspective, a person is legally blind if her corrected vision is 20/200.

If I misplaced or damaged my contacts or glasses, I’d be lost.

For some reason, I constantly worried over the condition and location of my eyewear. And I used up every ounce of my self-control staying organized in that one area so I had nothing left to stay organized with anything else.

Using Up Self-Control

Several psychological research studies have found that self-control is a diminishing resource.

In one experiment, students who had to resist eating chocolate chip cookies gave up solving a tricky math problem sooner than subjects who ate all the cookies they wanted. The effort of resisting the tempting cookies made the students too tired to persist in solving the next problem.

Interestingly, someone has also tested the effects on dogs exerting self-control.

One study found that dogs who had to sit for ten minutes made riskier decisions than dogs who didn’t have to control themselves for that time.

What can we learn?

Let’s Give Ourselves a Break

Science has given us an excuse to be slackers.

If we spend too much time controlling ourselves, we wear ourselves out and don’t accomplish what we need to.

Honey the Golden Retriever and Mike nap on the beach.

I guess the self-control is exhausted.

I did keep track of my eyewear between the tent, car, and camp bathroom. But my brain was mush for doing anything else.

After Honey’s marathon of self-control at the vet, I avoided situations on the way home where she might not make good decisions.  And we spent ten minutes playing fetch in the park after leaving the vet’s office to replenish her resources.

Perhaps if I had kept my eye care supplies in a pouch around my neck, I would have had enough brain power left to do something, anything, else with some degree of competence. But instead, I used up all my self-control and mental energy keeping track of a few hundred dollars worth of plastic and metal.

It wasn’t my best moment.

Is anyone else with me? Are you willing to limit your self-control just a little bit so you have the reserves left to do other things?

After all, it’s good for the dog. And it’s good for us too.

Your Turn: Have you ever noticed other areas of your life suffering when you’re working hard on self-control in another aspect of your life? How about your dog? Does she make worse decisions after having to control herself for too long?

Something Swagging This Way Comes Giveaway

Honey the Golden Retriever admires BlogPaws swag.Thank you so much to the 70 people who took my long and involved survey. I’m just starting to look at your many great suggestions for improving Something Wagging This Way Comes. And I’m encouraged by your kind words.

The survey is now closed. But I welcome any constructive comments by email or in the comments.

Please stop by tomorrow when I’ll announce our two prize winners.

And thanks again for wagging with us day after day.

 

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Comments

  1. I think this is one of the reasons that stress accumulates, both for dogs and people. After successfully handling three or four stressors, the next one can be too much.

    It gets people with fearful dogs all the time. “He’s always been able to handle that before!” Or, “he’s never reacted *that* strongly!” Or, even worse, “He was having such a great day! He handled everything else.” Well, all those other times, he hadn’t already experienced X, Y, and Z.

    • Such a great point. It’s very easy to push our dogs just a little too far when they’re having a good day.

      We always need to remember to stop while things are going well and not pushing past the stress point.

  2. I’ve leaned to exercise self-control by not buying women’s magazines that promise I can raise Nobel prize winning children while losing three dress sizes in a month.

  3. I save my supermarket skimming for all the fascinating details of the Kardasians of however it is spelled. :)

  4. Interesting post and after a stressful week at work and then site troubles over the weekend, I can absolutely relate to using up all of my self-control. By Saturday night I was exhausted and if someone had looked at me funny…well, it would have been trouble! If you think about it – it absolutely makes sense that it would happen to dogs as well as people – so much of our behaviors/reactions are similar.

    • Hopefully you can take some stress management tips from the dogs. I wouldn’t recommend some of their more embarrassing behaviors. But perhaps running zoomies in the yard or playing catch would do you some good. :)

  5. Stress from different avenues can pile up and have a detrimental effect on your heath.
    I had all I could do keep my-self control when dealing with my manager . I was exhausted at the end of the day and developed acid reflux and had trouble sleeping. Not a good thing. I recognized it before it broke me – i retired. No more manager. No more acid reflux. No more sleep problems.

    With BJ, when he became stressed, he would whine and would snap at people, including me. He was stressed because of his muscle aches after he fell. I knew exactly when his laser treatments took care of his pain. He stopped snapping and returned to his sweet self.

    We need to monitor our self control and our pet’s self control.

    • How interesting that mental stress caused you physical pain and physical pain caused BJ mental stress. You’re mirror images of each other.

      And yes, life is way too short to spend all our time trying to keep calm in the face of insanity, stupidity, or just plain nonsense.

  6. De Cunningham (@Skye613 ) says:

    Love your posts. You always make me consider things that I may not have thought about before.

  7. Me to the Daddy, just now, “Pamela says you would have more self control to use for things like not leaving dirty underpants in the entry way and shutting the fridge door firmly, if you weren’t wasting so much self control on watching your diet, going to the gym and making sure all the wrestling shows were taped.”

    Daddy, “Pamela sounds like a real jerk.”

    Hmmmm…I know that’s not the case so my plan may not have worked like I wanted. You make so many excellent points. I definitely can feel my self control diminish as I use it up on everyday things like being polite to my boss when he gives me a “last minute project” that I know has been on his desk all month or not losing my cool with the phone company over my $1000 Blogpaws cell phone bill (they billed it all wrong. ALL WRONG.) sometimes I just don’t have enough self control left to wrassle with a piece of pie.

    • No, no, no, Jodi. You applied the wrong bit of brain science to the dirty underwear problem.

      Instead, you need to reward small approximations of the behavior you’re hoping to teach. But don’t go too quickly.

      I’m only up to popping a bit of peanut butter into Mike’s mouth for looking at a dirty dish. I’m hoping we are touching actual soap in 3 or 4 months. :)

      • Oh, we tried positive reinforcement and clicker training to no avail. I haven’t found what motivates him yet. Due to that diet he’s wasting all his self control on, food rewards are not soliciting a positive change. I wonder if there’s a human version of the Sirius Puppy Classes?

        • Just remember that key to positive reinforcement is finding irresistible treats. You might want to visit a website other than a dog blog for better ideas. :)

  8. Great post. I have read about both the human and dog studies you mentioned, but forgot about them. I think my desire to manage self-control at the office probably leads to me being mentally exhausted by the time I get home. The only way I know to rejuvenate is to take the dogs for a walk. When don’t I end up being less relaxed and more easily frustrated by simple things.
    I’ve also noticed my dogs tire out more quickly when we do games and tricks. Self-control is exhausting! :)

    • I ran out of room in this post but I was also thinking about how I come home shattered from office work. But physical work finds me tired but with some energy left after a shower.

      Most of the time I do physical work I don’t have to be so “buttoned up.” But that’s certainly not true in the office.

      If only you could squeeze a dog walk into the middle of your work day. :)

  9. I LOVE THIS!! I try to exert as little self-control as possible! My dogs even less! I knew we were right!!! YAYYYYYY!!!!!!

  10. I definitely think that when I have to exert a lot of self-control in one area that other areas of my life suffer. Right now, we have a VERY challenging student in our class. The short version is that he has some mental health issues at only four years old. Plus, there are nineteen other little bodies who need attention and help on being the best they can be, too. My teaching partner has checked out. She’s got an excuse to be gone all the time now, it seems. The truth of the matter is that I need to take a day or two off for myself, but I can’t, because somebody has to be there for all of the kids. And I’m sick to death of babysitting substitute teachers along with watching all the kids. So, I’m using a lot of self-control in that area of my life right now, and other things are suffering for it. I sit down to comment on other blogs and find that I’m barely getting through any. It’s taking me longer to get things written, too. I know what I want to do and say, but so many other little things keep distracting me that normally would not. I feel like I’m mired in inertia!

    As a footnote, I have to say that Mike is one heck of a great model for this post! After seeing him at BlogPaws, I kind of thought he might wear a bow tie for camping or something! :P

    • Sounds like you’re pretty exhausted by work. After all is said and done, you can only forgive yourself for putting all your resources where they’re most needed and let everything else slide.

      I just finished an excellent book by Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. They’re economists who write really practical and interesting books about behavioral and organizational change.

      Anyway, several of their examples of amazing change that seemed unlikely took place in schools. I wonder if their examples might be useful to you. If you have time, I really recommend the book.

      As for Mike–he left his tie back in the tent. :)

  11. Really interesting post. Does this mean you’re giving me permission to have 6 cookies tonight? :) I’ve also noticed that if I deny myself something, then I will gorge on it the next time. Amazing that dogs are like this too.

  12. None of those how to……better are for us. We think they are just a stupid waste of time. We just believe in going with the flow. We don’t stress about being stressed. Have a terrific Tuesday.
    Best wishes Molly

    • Amen. How to’s are the curse of America. Are British supermarket magazines as bad?

      I wonder if we’ll ever think we’re good enough just as we are? :)

  13. Mom does feel that way about her self control but she has never thought about it with us dogs but you may have something here. Very interesting post for thought!

    • Reading about the dog experiment made me wonder about service dogs. If they’re accompanying their person to work or school every day, do they make worse decisions by the end of the day?

      Maybe you could do your own experiment with Emma. :)

  14. Honey is such a darling. Humans on the otherhand sure put themselves in some awful self-control experiments. I am working at the “Give yourself a break” idea. I think I can master it!

    • This is a lesson where we really need to look to the cats. Dogs try too hard, like humans. But cats seem to do just what they want to do.

      There’s a lot of kitty wisdom there we need to listen to.

  15. LOL! This makes so much sense. Maya spends so much time being a good dog at home that losing her self-control is inevitable when she goes out in public. I took her to the vet yesterday because she has been sneezing. She did no where near as well as Honey. She scared a little dog with her exuberance. She’d only sit, and not quietly, for about 20 seconds at a time. Then she greeted the vet by jumping on him! I do have to give her kudos, though, for being good when he looked down her nostrils, stuck a thermometer in her behind, and gave her a shot.

  16. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? The tighter you’re wound the bigger the rebound when you unwind…same for dogs I think…Cutting loose, free play and unstructured time are important for all of us

  17. Interesting study on self control. I do notice that Chester and Gretel get grumpier as we near the end of a long walk where they have to deal with other dogs. I always thought it was because they were getting tired physically. That didn’t totally make sense to me because you always hear that a tired dog is a better behaved dog. Being physically tired might be part of it but now I wonder if it is because they are getting mentally tired. By the end of the walk they have spent a long time being well behaved so perhapsthey are running out of self-control.

  18. Mike Webster says:

    From the Husband:
    MUST. . . REFRAIN. . . FROM MAKING. . . DUMB JOKE. . .

  19. Well I never seem to have ENOUGH self control…so maybe I’ve just been using it up too quickly. LOL! I’ll have to take notice if not buying that neat dog collar I fell in love with has any effect on how many times I cheat on my diet. :-)