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New Study Shows Dogs are Risk Takers

By Linda Cole

We exercise self control every day to keep our feelings, actions and thoughts under control. But sometimes we all have days when patience is thin and it can be difficult to keep from saying or doing something that could get us into trouble. If we have a hard time controlling our actions at times, imagine how hard it can be for our dogs. In a new study, team of French researchers led by Holly Miller from the University of Lille Nord de France wanted to find out if dogs react like us when they lose self control and become risk takers when their buttons are pushed to the limit.

The researchers wanted to know if dogs would throw caution to the wind and be willing to gamble by making impulsive decisions that could become dangerous or harmful to them. The answer turns out to be yes; dogs will react in much the same way we do when we have a lapse in controlling our emotions due to stress, being over tired or frustrated.

Researchers recruited 10 dogs from home environments for their testing. In one test, the dogs were trained to sit and stay on a mat for 10 minutes. As they sat still, a ZhuZhuPet toy hamster was sent roaming around the room as a distracting annoyance. The toy forced the dogs to maintain self control to remain on the mat. After 10 minutes, the dogs were taken into another room one at a time where they encountered a snarling, barking dog confined in a cage. Each dog was left in the room for four minutes as researchers recorded where the dogs chose to spend their time.

The next day the dogs were put into cages where they waited for 10 minutes. They were free to move around in the cage and didn't have to exercise any self control by watching an annoying toy running around the room. After 10 minutes in a cage, each dog was again taken into a room with the snarling, barking dog in a cage. The dogs that spent their four minutes close to the angry dog in the cage were said to be more impulsive, and if they stayed away from the caged dog, they were more cautious.

The tests showed that when the dogs had to use self control to sit and stay, they were more likely to show poor judgment – 58.9 percent of their time was spent in close proximity to the snarling dog, compared to only 41.8 percent after waiting in a cage for 10 minutes and being more relaxed when encountering what could be a dangerous situation for them.

The reason this is an important discovery is because it shows that, like us, dogs are more apt to engage in riskier actions when they are tired or stressed out. Maintaining self control is just as important for dogs as it is for us. When you stop and think about it, we ask our dogs to exercise self control every day. They have to behave while we're away from home. We don't want them to bark excessively, we expect them to control themselves and not have accidents in the house, and we expect them to control their impulse to bite.

We need to understand that our dogs do maintain self control the best they can. If someone ticks us off to the point where we snap and we end up telling off a co-worker or yelling at a driver who just cut us off, we may hurt some feelings, but no one really faults us for snapping. We all do it. But when a dog snaps, that's a different story. Even a friendly dog can have his self control compromised when he's continually poked, prodded or yelled at by kids running around him. A dog that doesn't feel well, or is in pain will only take so much before he reaches the limit to his patience. Canines show amazing self restraint at times, even when under a lot of pressure. Sometimes dogs need a break from us or the kids.

The only way a dog can let us know he wants to be left alone is with his bite. By paying attention to a dog's body language, you can see if he is having trouble maintaining his self control with kids, with you or with other dogs. We're only human, and sometimes we lose our patience and take riskier actions. This recent study suggests that when a dog's self control is depleted, they are more likely to engage in riskier actions as well. Perhaps it also suggests we need to be more understanding of what our dogs deal with on a daily basis.

Photo by Ronn Aldaman

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