I commonly preach to my clients on the benefits of regularly practicing obedience exercises with their dogs that require self control.
“Self control,” I say, “is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. If you don’t use it, it goes into atrophy.”
I of course, only based this piece of advice on my own experience as a professional trainer, having trained thousands of dogs. I certainly had no scientific evidence to back me up, but I preach this like a religion. This simple idea is the reason behind why I instruct my trainers who conduct classes here to put so much emphasis on the down-stay position, or a simple place command. These two exercises are the cornerstones of self control in the dog training world.
Recently however, science stepped into my corner. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology recently released a study titled: “Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance”, confirming what I had learned through experience.
Quite simply, the study found that Self-control performance may be improved by the regular practice of small acts of self-control. Ninety-two adults’ self-control capacity was assessed using the stop signal paradigm before they started practicing self-control and again at the end of 2 weeks. Participants who practiced self-control exhibited significant improvement in stop signal performance relative to those who practiced tasks that did not require self-control. Participants who did not practice self-control believed that the tasks should improved self-control, engaged in tasks that were effortful and made self-control salient, but did not actually require self-control. Supplemental analyses suggested that only practicing self-control built self-control capacity.
In the dog world, controlled walking, or heeling, is another primary self control task. The average dog’s natural pace is much faster than a human’s, and there are many super cool things out in the world that the dog wants to check out. This usually leads to the dog dragging her owner around on the leash. Teaching a dog to walk politely on a leash, fundamentally requires 2 things:
1) A general awareness of the handlers position
2) Self Control
Your dog wants to go in front of you, of course she does, every inch of her body is telling her to move faster than you. Her ability then to slow down and walk at your pace, is directly related to her capacity for self control. By taking your dog for two controlled walks a day, you can greatly increase her ability to utilize self control in all aspects of her life.