Brain scans support this finding. Researchers have found that the process of making decisions increases activity in the nucleus accumbens (the “reward center” of the brain), and decreased activity in the amygdala (the area that helps with self-control). The conclusion was that the process of making decisions results in a “propensity to experience everything more intensely.” Interestingly, both the feelings and the changes in the brain could be reversed by giving the subject sugar (glucose).
So what does this have to do with dogs? Well, when I first read this, I immediately thought of Maisy. I’ve known for awhile that prolonged exposure to stress makes it more likely that she’ll have a reactive episode. I thought it had to do with stress hormones in the body (and it probably does to some degree), but could it also be decision fatigue? It certainly seems possible- a reactive dog who must make dozens or even hundreds of decisions throughout the course of a day. The dog sees or hears something, must decide if it is a threat, and then decide how to react.
Maisy has a lot of decisions to make in this situation!
As it turns out, I wasn't alone in wondering about this, because researchers at the University of Kentucky studied the phenomenon in dogs. They found that dogs who were subjected to 10 minutes of sit and stay commands performed worse on self-control tests than the control group. As with humans, a dose of glucose restored their willpower.
The article concludes by stating that the people who are best at self-control share several traits in common: they do not schedule back-to-back meetings, which allows them to rest and recover after a bout of decision-making. They create routines and habits so that they can reduce the number of decisions they must make. They avoid going places that will test their willpower, such as all-you-can-eat buffets. And they always make important decisions after being well-rested and well-fed.
The implications for our reactive dogs seem clear. I’ve written before about how important routines and downtime are for Maisy’s sanity. I am incredibly careful to make sure Maisy gets plenty of time to rest, and especially to recover after a stressful event. For example, we didn’t enter the last trial because she’d spent the weekend before at a boarding kennel. I’m not as strict about routines, though like any household, there is an expected order of events throughout the day.
It also strikes me that the ultimate goal of training reactive dogs is to create new reflexes so that the dog doesn’t need to make decisions. This is the goal of counter-conditioning, and Leslie McDevitt talks about “environmental cues,” where the trigger itself becomes the cue for Look at That. Trained well, the dog shouldn’t even need to think about what he’ll do- he’ll simply do it, hopefully reducing his decision burden.
And then there is the matter of how we handle trials with our reactive dogs. The dog study cited in the article indicated that after 10 minutes of obedience, the dogs lost much of their ability to exert self-control. Now, granted, we are never in the ring for a full ten minutes, but still: our dogs need to be given the chance to rest after a performance. For some dogs, simply being in their crate is good enough. This has never been the case for Maisy, who finds that stressful, too. Before we quit trialing, I had been experimenting with going to the car for a break or taking “awareness walks.”
I also wonder about the glucose aspect in all this. I've never really paid attention to how treats do or do not affect my dog. I know one of my trainer friends recommends cutting out all sugar. She claims this helps, but it seems like this study suggests otherwise. (Then again, I am not good enough with chemistry to state that outright.) I also have never really trained without food- our recent forays into heeling-for-a-ball notwithstanding- so I have no real basis for comparison.
What do you guys think? Have you noticed a change in your dog’s behavior based on whether or not he’s eaten recently? Does the type of food make a difference? Do you have routines you follow with your dog? What are they like? How much downtime does your dog need? I’d love to hear from my fellow reactive dog owners.