Do dogs have spoons, and what happens if they run out?

In mental health, spoon theory can be used to define the amount of mental energy we have to spend on daily tasks. But, can the same theory be applied to dogs? Here’s what I think…

If you haven’t heard of spoon theory…

In 2003, Christine Miserandino used spoons to describe how Lupus was affecting her energy levels. For her, each spoon represented an amount of energy she had available, and each activity came at a cost in spoons. So for example, getting out of bed, having a shower, making breakfast, getting dressed and leaving the house might all cost a spoon each. That’s five spoons altogether. So, if you only start the day with ten spoons, and you’ve used five just leaving the house, you will have to be careful what you do for the rest of the day. Five remaining spoons won’t go very far if you still have to go to work, pick up groceries, and make dinner.

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This principle doesn’t just apply to people with Lupus, or even people with chronic conditions. It is also used in mental health, and anyone that has suffered with depression or other mental health condition will know how limiting the condition can be.

Most of us have enough “spoons” to get us through a normal day. That might include running a family, working full time, taking care of the dog, and any additional hobbies and social commitments. But, anyone suffering with a mental health or physical condition may have a reduced number. This means that compromises may have to be made to avoid running out.

What about our dogs?

So, I got wondering if this could apply to our pet dogs. It would certainly help explain unpredictable and inconsistent behaviour. If dogs had a fixed number of spoons to get them through their day too, and some had more, or less, than others. This would help us to understand why some days they cope better than others. And it could explain how behaviour problems start, seemingly from nowhere.

Just like people, a dog with good mental and physical health might be able to manage most things. But, lets imagine a dog that is suffering with pain, or has anxiety and other behaviour issues. Maybe they use some of their spoons to cope with a delivery man, take a walk, sniff some new sniffs, and have breakfast. But then a person looks at them on the way home from their walk, and the dog lunges at the passer-by. This could feel quite unprovoked, but what if that dog has just run out of spoons?

How many spoons?

Just like us, I believe that some dogs have loads of spoons. They find life easier and are resilient to most things. They also rest more regularly, so even if they are running low they can quickly recharge. But, I think others must have access to far less.

Teenagers and rescue dogs will certainly have less. Emotionally they are both on a bit of a rollercoaster and this can make them less resilient and more vulnerable to change. This is a lonely time, and they both need a strong and supportive family behind them. Of course, in both cases, it is probably available. But, neither group of dogs will be able to see that until they are emotionally ready.

Anxious dogs are also vulnerable. When you spend a lot of the day worrying and trying to keep yourself safe, you will quickly run out of spoons. Anxiety interrupts rest, so they can’t replenish the ones they use either. This also impacts our teenagers and rescue dogs, so a double whammy for them.

Any dog that is suffering with illness or pain will have a reduced number. It isn’t always obvious when that is the case though. So I often recommend a vet check just to rule that out before we start training. It just wouldn’t be fair to ask a dog to try to change their behaviour and habits when they start the day with less capacity to cope than normal.

For dogs, almost anything could cost them a spoon. Every experience, activity, and worry could count such as the arrival of a visitor, patrolling the fence at home, or exploring a new scent. But, here are some that often get missed: staying home alone, learning a new trick, trying out a new harness, discovering a novel object, resisting temptation such as not taking food, or ignoring other dogs, holding a pee, or even having a groom!

Balancing their spoons

When we are managing our own spoons, we know how many we started with, and we know what things cost so we can save our spoons for what we need later. If we know we have a big meeting later, we can get lunch delivered rather than making it ourselves, then do light work, in between, so there are enough spoons to take the meeting, and get home.

Dogs can’t predict and plan their days, so we have to help them as much as we can. A predictable routine will help him. If your dog knows he will get three walks a day, his meals at 8am and 6pm, and is home alone between 2pm and 5pm, and suddenly starts refusing the morning walk, he might be saving a spoon for his afternoon home alone!

a brown collie dog is laying beside his bowl of biscuits waiting for a cue to take them.
Resisting urges, such as waiting for a cue to eat, could use up unnecessary spoons needed for other things

Unfortunately, we just don’t know how many spoons they start with or what things cost for our dogs. When this is the case, we must stay alert and watch for anxiety or avoidance behaviours. These are signs that something is wrong, and these situations probably cost a lot of spoons. If we observe their behaviour enough we can start to see the signs that they are running out of steam and we can learn how to balance their spoons for them.

Alternatively, we can manage their spoons a bit. So, if we know we are going for a training walk later, but they don’t cope with people walking past the house. Why not close the blinds so they don’t see outside until after they have had their training walk, and had an opportunity to recharge. Maybe, you have a visit to the groomers planned. If your dog might have reduced spoons then take them in the car instead of taking a long walk. Or, if the car causes anxiety, do it the other way round.

When your dog runs out of spoons…

When humans run out of spoons, simple things become impossible. You can’t shower, make decisions, go outside, make food, or even get dressed. Everything become a million times harder, so you can either rest, or you can push through and borrow spoons from tomorrow. Borrowing spoons has a knock on effect, of course.

Our dogs are pleasers, they also instinctively hide anything that could be a sign of weakness. So, they don’t often just stop. So, instead, they get grumpy, frustrated, and reactive. Maybe they guard their food, refuse to eat, or snap at other dogs. Or perhaps, they bite at their lead, grab your clothes, or refuse to get their harness on.

Of course, this means they are either constantly borrowing spoons, or frequently grumpy. Over time, grumpy behaviour becomes the new normal and now inconsistent behaviour has become a behaviour problem. This is often confused with dominant behaviour when in fact it came from anxiety and frustration.

Or, we could enforce rest. Self care can replenish spoons and keep us going, and the same is true for our dogs. When they have run out of spoons, they are in a state or overwhelm and exhaustion. So a really good nap, or long rest, can work wonders.

Don’t waste spoons

Separately to this, it will help to work on all behaviour and training problems, whether they are impactful to you or not. If your dog can’t do a recall because they are distracted by other dogs, it means they have a socialisation problem. The recall might not matter, but the dog isn’t emotionally balanced when they are near other dogs. The same goes for separation anxiety. You might be able to work around dog sitters and friends to keep your dog company. But a dog that can’t cope alone is also not emotionally balanced and lacks vital resilience. In any case, abnormal or exaggerated emotional responses are almost certainly using up your dogs spoons unnecessarily, and leaving nothing for the important stuff.

Using positive training methods to solve problems and teach new behaviours will build resilience and trust. Clickers have hidden benefits that can enhance this effect even further. But, whichever type of positive training you use, taking this approach will boost your dogs spoon reserves, and it will stop him wasting spoons on avoidable stuff.

So, what do I think?

In my opinion, dogs do have their own variation of the spoon theory. I work with dogs everyday that could be vulnerable to a limited or fast depleting reserve of spoons. When the theory is applied, it makes perfect sense, and really helps explain why they struggle sometimes. Once we look at managing their spoons, or whatever you’d like to call it, good things start to happen!

Are you struggling with unpredictable dog behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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