Thursday, September 22, 2011

Do Reactive Dogs Suffer from Decision Fatigue?

I recently read an article about a concept called decision fatigue. Basically, scientists have found that making decisions requires the brain to pay a “biological price.” The more decisions a person makes throughout the course of the day, the harder it becomes. Ultimately, the result of making many decisions is a decrease in the person’s ability to exhibit self-control. The brain begins to look for shortcuts: to either act recklessly and impulsively, or to do nothing at all by making no decisions.

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.


KLW @ Dog.Nerd.101 said...

Great post, sounds like an interesting study. I'll have to keep an eye out to see how the glucose/food thing affects Griff. Decision fatigue definitely seems to be at play with reactive dogs though... and I think you're right, the more automatic we can make the decision (i.e Look at that) the better we equip our dogs to NOT have to make those decisions. We see similar responses in PTSD patients who are continuously hyper-vigilant. This heightened awareness leads to increased levels of stress hormones and cortisol... makes sense. The question is, what is it that is the "rest" period for the dogs? Some clients with PTSD don't ever really feel the relief of "down time" (the maintain arousal and hypervigilance) In dogs, it would seem that finding that sweet spot, that does offer some mental relief, is critical. It will be interesting to see what others think! Great post!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

I know what you're saying about needing the "relief of down time." That was quite elusive for Maisy before she started medication- she would wake up easily, startle at very, very small stimuli... well, she has an anxiety disorder, after all!

jen said...

Superbly interesting!
Our Kiba is calmer on a full stomach, and seems much more anxious or apt to react in a bigger way when we make him hungry before our training session. I understand that our trainer wants him to want the food, but he's naturally calmer on a full stomach. I think, anyway. He doesn't eat anything with added sugar in it.

and he looks forward to down time, even if its just a few moments during training sessions with our trainer. He'd rather be chillin and relaxin than have to make those decisions during training.

Like Kirby said, I hope our end result is a proofed response so he doesn't have to make decisions when confronted with an oncoming dog, it will automatically be "look at me"... but I think we're a looooooong ways off

Jen said...

What a great notion!

I definitely think "decision fatigue" is something that can fry dog (and human!) brains. How to watch out for the signs of it is something to think on, certainly. "Down time" is always mentioned as important with regards to learning, but I agree that it also is when it comes to stressful situations like trialing, or sometimes just being out in public.

Joanna said...

So a lack of impulse control leading to eating a bunch of chocolate will actually restore my impulse control again? Must experiment with this! ;)

It makes sense on an intuitive level, although I would have thought of it as "making decisions tires out your brain, and therefore you have less energy to resist temptations," or something like that.

Dawn said...

I think I will try the sugar concept with Magic as well. he tends to shut down when stressed, and he definately gets stressed when asked to make decisions, so maybe switching to a sugary type treat over the typical dried meat might be beneficial.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Dawn, I'd love to hear how it goes if you try it!

Anonymous said...

Ok, seriously.
Interesting post, but you really have GOT to stop over-analyzing some things.

Sometimes your dog is just being an aggressive jerk with no emotional control whatsoever, and you need to correct them for that.
A well-timed leash jerk can really truly accomplish what you spend months of training and hundreds of dollars on.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...


There is no doubt that using corrections, like you suggest, can and does work. People wouldn't train that way if it didn't. However, the risk of fallout from such techniques exists. Since I have the luxury of time and money, I am quite willing to take an approach that has a lower risk of causing additional problems.

Using corrections is also an approach that I'm personally uncomfortable with. Perhaps that's because I have a hard time seeing my dog as "an aggressive jerk," or perhaps it's because I'm generally nonconfrontational by nature. Either way, I have found methods of achieving the results I want without having to use leash corrections.

As for overanalyzing things... well, yes. I do that. I sort of have to, though- like you said, it's interesting!

Thank you for your comment. I know you might disagree with some of my training philosophies, but I do hope you'll find something of value here.

E said...

Hi Crystal. I so much enjoy your blog. I have a reactive dog too, and she is also hypothyroid. Perhaps you already know that there are actually energy drinks that include glucose for performance dogs. They sell some at Some agility folks swear by them. I have never tried one on my dog so don't have a vested interest. And to Joanna: You have actually put your finger on something that they mention in the article. The decision fatigue thing is a catch-22 for dieters, since eating is what helps increase self-control!


Ninso said...

Anonymous, that may be true for some dogs and some situations. However, sometimes your dog is NOT "just being an aggressive jerk" and a correction does nothing whatsoever or makes the situation worse. I know this from personal experience with my own aggressive dogs. One of whom I can correct extremely harshly and it will NOT stop him. The other it will only make her fear the object of her aggression more and make our problems worse. The second part of your comment however is spot on--"no emotional control whatsoever." A dog for whom corrections work MUST by definition have some emotional control. Corrections do not teach emotional control. They work because the dog has enough emotional control over himself and presence of mind to be able to learn the "action/consequence" lesson. (That is not to say that falllout will not still be a problem for these dogs.) In short--the type of "overanalysis" crystal does is absolutely necessary for the type of dog she and many of her readers have. Keep it up crystal!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Eileen- Thanks for your comment! I didn't know about the energy drinks for dogs. That makes a lot of sense, though- those highly athletic dogs (agility, flyball, whatever) could probably really benefit from them.

KLW @ Dog.Nerd.101 said...

Love the dialogue here! AND the over-analyzing! Inquisitive minds are what lead to understanding, and understanding leads to learning. Learn on folks learn on!
Unfortunately, what Anonymous (why not post with your actual identity?) said is true in some ways, "corrections work." They "work" to repress behaviors and yep, as Ninso said, dogs do learn the "actions have consequences" lesson. They are not learning emotional control or self-regulation though, they are learning that their fear or internal emotional experience is unacceptable, and that they are not allowed to communicate with us and other dogs authentically about what they are experiencing. So what you create is a growl, or fear response that goes under ground, (not gone at all, just displaced or hidden) and then at a later time, when the stimulus (feared stimulus) becomes to overwhelming to the dog, the emotional response comes exploding out (with a fight or flee reaction.) Corrections teach a dog to stop doing what he is doing. For some behaviors in some situations, it may work, without much fallout. But for reactive, fearful dogs, corrections usually are disasterous for not only the dog, but your relationship with your dog. Great post Crystal, love the connection to peer reviewed journals and research.