The New York Times recently published a fascinating article on a phenomenon called “decision fatigue”. Scientific studies repeatedly back up the fairly commonsensical idea that being forced to make decisions – in particular when the chosen options demand exerting a certain amount of self-control – is an exhausting and stressful process. Making decisions makes us tired – and irritable.
The experiments, results, and implications in our everyday lives are both fascinating and troubling to read about. What struck me, however, was the relevance of decision fatigue to the world of dog training. Certainly, if humans suffer from decision fatigue, no doubt dogs do too; and and three consequences come to my mind.
The first is fairly common knowledge:
Don’t overdo training sessions.
It is often said you should work on obedience commands and the like for no more than five or ten minutes at a time, no more than a few times each day. Dogs, much like kids, get tired in class quickly, and can lose focus and become irritable and distracted. If you can’t get the dog to succeed, you can’t reward him – which means he can’t progress.
The second consequence is understood among trainers, yet needs to be paid more attention by many dog owners:
Obedience training is a fulfilling form of exercise.
I always say that physical exercise is just one of three types of exercise dogs need – the other two being social exercise (ever been too exhausted to go to that dinner party?) and mental. Dogs need to work out mentally just much as physically, in order to be relaxed, fulfilled, and emotionally balanced.
The third consequence of decision fatigue has to do in particular with fearful, anxious dogs. This is controversial, but I believe it soundly and I’ve seen it work miracles in numerous cases. Yet in my experience it is unrecognized by both trainers and dog owners in general:
Anxious/fearful dogs need leadership and assignments.
The idea is simple: if your dog is anxious, stressed, or afraid, putting them in a social position in which they are required to make more, rather than fewer, decisions, will generally do more harm than good. Tiptoeing around fearful dogs can trap them in their own anxiety; while strong, happy leadership can pull them right through, and out the other side.
I’ll give three examples of this principle, applied to three common issues I’ve worked on with dozens of clients.
Many dogs that are entirely peaceful and social with other dogs off-leash can act aggressively when ON leash. The combination of causes vary from case to case; but one extremely common underlying feature is fear/anxiety.
When a fearful dog leads your walk, by pulling on the leash in front of you – instead of following on a loose leash behind you – he is in the natural position of the “pack leader” – literally, physically and geometrically the leader of your little social pack. Along with that position comes the role and responsibility of deciding who and what encountered along the way are threats, and who/what are friendly. Add decision-fatigue to a naturally anxious dog and it is unsurprising that more passers-by are deemed threats in this situation than in less stressful ones.
The solution is to keep your leash-aggressive dog behind you, in a follower position instead of leader. Deciding who is a threat, and who isn’t, is then your role and responsibility, not your dog’s. Not only can you decide differently; your dog will simultaneously become more relaxed as a result of not having to make those decisions in the first place – so when he is put back in that position, he’ll tend to be a lot more peaceful.
Dogs that are over-attached to their owners – so-called “velcro” dogs – can whine, bark, howl, dig, chew, and even physically harm themselves when their owners leave them alone. (An unavoidable daily reality for most city dog owners.)
Again, no doubt a combination of psychological causes is in effect here. Including, most obviously, the dogs’ desire to be with their owners. But also, plausibly: wondering if their owner needs them; believing that their owner forgot about them; unsure whether they were supposed to try and follow; and confusion over what to do now.
All of these can be eased by giving the anxious dog an assignment before leaving. I call it a “separation ritual”: tell your dog what you want them to do – preferably something calming, peaceful, and enjoyable – e.g. “Go to your bed!”, while leaving a chewy treat. Though much of this is part of the commonly recommended ritual among trainers, it differs drastically from the also-common (unfortunately in my opinion) prescription to distract the dog with a treat and “sneak out” before they figure out what’s going on. Part of the reason I believe I’ve found the “assignment” approach to be so successful is that the dog learns he is not in control, not the one responsible for the important decisions that result in – or can reverse – the separation. Making fewer decisions means less decision-fatigue – and less anxiety.
Most dogs are afraid of thunder, many so severely that they tremble, shake, whine, and can cause themselves physical harm – or even suffer a heart-attack – during a storm.
I’ve found thunderstorm-phobia to be a more intractable problem than either of the two problems I just mentioned, I imagine at least in part due to the deep and innate nature of the fear. However, every ounce of the admittedly limited success I’ve found treating thunder-phobia has come from being a strong leader to the anxious dog and providing calming, consistent assignments. Again, “Go to your bed” is my standby here: the bed is calming, safe, and cozy.
A fearful dog won’t initially want to go there during the trigger episode – whether assigned or not – but left to its own devices, the fear doesn’t subside, it just builds as the dog paces, pants, and works himself into a lather. Consistent followthrough of the obedience assignment, on the other hand – followed by any and every reward the dog will accept – removes the dog’s added stress of deciding what to do, how best to help him and you. The thunder will still be frightening, but a calmer base emotional state will be less affected by that fear.
Any thoughts, opinions, or insights about decision-fatigue in dogs, or any of the other issues above? Let me know, I’d love to hear! – Anthony@calmenergydogtraining.com