Self-Control and Aggression

It made no sense.

This high-wire, intense dog was doing great in his training. He worked crisply and immediately, he worked eagerly and with an open mouth and yet... he was falling apart. Seemed when the stay got better, the crate behavior got worse; when the crate behavior got better, the door behavior fell apart.

He was not a simple dog on a good day, not average, not “normal” for a pet dog, but still - what was going on?

Then I read a piece “Cranky? On a Diet? How Self-Control Leads to Anger” in Science Daily which said:

Research has shown that exerting self-control makes people more likely to behave aggressively...




It seems there might be, in some way, a limited amount of self-control available to each of us, use some of it one way and you have less of it for the next choice or stress. As someone who has been cranky after self-denial, I can completely believe that link could exist.

Could this also be true for some dogs?

If yes, maybe this is why “making your idea their idea” is so useful, successful and vital. It garners obedience without needed “self-control” because the choice the dog makes isn’t denial but rather opportunity. It becomes an action freely and actively chosen. The only “self-control” the dog exhibits is waiting eagerly for the chance to make the choice.

And, I also wonder if, as I have certainly observed in pups (and in myself), self-control can be developed, like a muscle. That with careful use and well-timed rewards, self-control becomes something the pup learns to associate with good results and therefore becomes a positive in their world. I suspect, done well and especially, though not exclusively, done early, it rewires/relabels/by-passes that process in the brain.

This would also go on to explain what I have seen from some "all positive" trained pet pups. Dogs who have never had to exhibit self-control at all. They are simply encouraged to try and keep trying, then told when they get it right. Take some of these dogs and ask for self-control later - such as at the vets or groomers - and watch out! That head swings around and that mouth can go with a confidence and intensity I rarely saw as a pro before these classes came into vogue.

I love positively-focused training but have long wondered why some of the "all positive" pet pups had this particular skeleton in their closests. This study helps me begin to see what might be happening and to understand why combining early marker work with handling (self-control = release) and space games (self-control = reward) can help produce a pet dog who is both enthusiastic and able to calm himself/control himself easily.

Then, if certain sorts of self-control do stress a dog, what role might exercise play in this brain game? Dog lovers have long observed that exercise is a wonderful “reset button” for dogs. Some romping, a little play, and the tension of the moment/day leaves us all. “Blowing off steam” may not be just a figure of speech or an imagined effect, but a real and important truth.

If we don’t consciously and actively hit that reset button, will some dogs then display that their “self-control” tank is on empty by impulsive actions around the house or rough play at the dog park?

Clearly, some dogs are more susceptible to these pressures than others. Some never seem to build stress. Some just sleep it off. But others like this intense dog? He seems to fit this picture that self-control one place can equal assertiveness/pushiness/aggression elsewhere.

I don’t have answers, just more questions. I'd be interested in your thoughts and your experience here.

Footnote: The implications for kids and school are potentially rather significant. What if the oft-cut from school recess and gym times are not, as is often thought, easily removed extras but vital pressure release valves for kids who have been exhibiting epic amounts of self-control sitting in class for hours?

Does bullying - could it be thought of as a rise in aggressive behavior after self-control - increase in schools that have cut out play and phys ed from their days?

What of children carefully swaddled from feeling frustration (i.e. practicing self-control) and who are not asked to exhibit self-control (it’s just his age, we want him to be creative, she’s just a free spirit...), who are endlessly entertained by modern and ubiquitous technology? Is it any surprise, knowing this brain pattern may exist, that they may be quick to anger when self-control is asked of them?


by Sarah Wilson

Author of handbooks: My Smart Puppy (book with DVD) and Childproofing Your Dog

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer