Ego Depletion in Dogs

If your dog ever appears to get grumpy or stubborn for no reason it’s likely they are suffering from ego depletion. Find out what that is and how it affects our dogs ability to learn and control impulses in my latest blog!

What is ego depletion?

If you’ve never heard of it before Ego depletion is when you use up all your willpower and run out of self control. In other words, the more you exercise self control in life, the less willpower you have left. You may recognise this in your own life. For example, if you have had an inspection at work and then try to buy groceries on the way home, you may find it harder to focus and concentrate on what you need. This is because you have already used up most of your willpower at work.The same could happen if you had family visiting, or are trying to give up smoking or chocolate!

Self-control is our ability to manage our urges, to focus on specific tasks or cues, and choose between opposing goals. For example, should I enjoy the delicious cake or choose a healthy, diet approved, salad? When our willpower is high, we might choose the salad! So when we are out of willpower, we behave differently and make different choices.

In dogs?

Ego depletion can affect our dogs in just the same way as it affects us. In fact any situation that forces a dog out of their comfort zone requires them to use their self-control. This could be visiting the groomer, a trip in the car, attending a training class, a walk around a crowded park, a prolonged sit/stay, formal lead walking, a dog show, ignoring a distraction, having guests, experiencing Christmas, road works outside the house, or anything else that they have to think about and manage their own behaviour. The longer the dog exercises self-control, the smaller the reserve.

When our dogs run out of willpower they will show signs of frustration and reactive behaviour. For example, if a dog is required to ignore other dogs on a walk, he may run out of self control and be more likely to bite and shake at their lead on the way home. Something they can normally resist!

Dogs that are micro-managed, or over trained, are particularly susceptible to ego depletion. These dogs are more likely to show reactive behaviour and frustration when they run out of will power. Holding poses or responding to streams of commands is hard work for most dogs that haven’t built up to it!

Frustration and reactive behaviour are often a result of ego depletion, but dogs that have run out of willpower are also more likely to bark or snap randomly, and act aggressively. They are also prone to displaced behaviour which, by definition, isn’t so easy to spot. I see this often in dogs that have a particular type of separation anxiety.

Check out this article on ego depletion in dogs from psychology today, it was written in 2014 but does a good job explaining a few studies that were being done at the time,

Ego Depletion in the teenage dog

We know that ego depletion effects dogs in the same way that it affects humans. So it’s fair to assume that our teenage dogs are just as susceptible as human teenagers. In fact, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to ego depletion because they are still developing their self-control. They also start the day with a much smaller reserve, so it empties much faster than that of an adult or puppy! If you have lived with a teenager (human or dog) you may have noticed!

two small dogs dressed up to look like rappers. one is wearing a heavy gold neck chain
Teenager dogs are particularly vulnerable to ego depletion!

How to prevent ego depletion in dogs

There are a few things that you can do to help prevent ego depletion in dogs.

  • First, make sure that your dog gets plenty of exercise and play time. This can help to re-stock self-control resources for better decision making.
  • Keep sessions short! Short, but frequent sessions are better than one long long session as it gives your dog the chance to replenish their will power! This might mean, periodically removing them from stressful situations such as if you have visitors, are grooming them, or in a place they don’t like so they can get a break. Why not engage them in some fun and rewarding play in their break for the triple-whammy!
  • Manage stress. If your dog is under even a small amount of stress they are exercising self control. So look out for early stress signals and avoidance behaviours such as lip licking, reluctance to move, side eye, or any kind of stiffness.
  • Get more sleep! Sleep is important for reducing stress on dogs and humans. While sleeping the brain sorts out everything that has caused stress and makes room for new experiences!
  • Keep it simple! Avoid giving your dog too many choices. Too many choices can be overwhelming and can lead to decision fatigue. Help them out and show them what you want form them – don;t forget to reward them (even though you did all the work) they’ll soon start making the same decision for themselves!
  • Identify stressors and advocate for them! If you don’t know what triggers them, you won’t manage the situation. If they find a place or situation stressful they will be using self control, make it easy for them to succeed and work on triggers later, and in small doses!
  • Reward your dog for good behavior. Positive reinforcement can also help to re-stock self control. Make sure rewards are meaningful though, a dog that is looking for attention won’t find a treat rewarding!
  • And finally, be patient and understanding. It takes time to develop self-control skills. Don’t get frustrated if your dog makes a mistake. Just keep providing support and encouragement and keep life as simple as possible! Remember, dogs that perform or compete in high obedience environments, have spent a lot of time building up to that level of self control.

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

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

Also, check out my online programmes and courses

Caroline
Caroline

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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