Dogs and Self Control…again.

A while back I wrote about self-control in ‘Tired Dogs Make Dumb Choices. The study “Too dog tired to avoid danger: Self-control depletion in canines increases behavioral approach toward an aggressive threat” has also prompted a blog post from new-age writer Lee Charles Kelley and in his usual manner he misreads the findings and superimposes his own dubious interpretations on the results.

Kelley begins his attack with a peripheral assault on another study; one about the circadian rhythm of fruit flies. The study published in Nature reports unexpected results when circadian rhythm under natural condition and notes the important role of temperature as a modulating force in circadian behaviour of drosophila.

The ScienceDaily article quotes the lead author.

“The clock genes identified over the past four decades have defined the field of chronobiology- however it may be that the importance of these genes for survival has been overstated.” [my emphasis]

Kelley disagrees:

“The fruit fly study shows that most of the research done on behavior involving circadian rhythms are invalid because they were done in a laboratory setting” [my emphasis]

The author of the study, an expert in the field of chronobiology has one opinion and LCK with no experience in the field has another.  What the study shows is that the findings are valid for a laboratory setting and that it’s more than clock genes that affect circadian rhythms. In other words their importance has been overstated.  It suggests further research into how temperature affects circadian rhythms.

Kelley’s true intention is to plant the idea that we can know nothing about behavior from studies done in the lab and that they are all “invalid”, thus setting up his argument for his attack on self-control findings. He goes on:

“One of the things Western science does well is isolate certain specific aspects of natural phenomena to see how they tick. The problem with this approach is that sometimes the things we isolate are working in synergy with other unseen or unaccounted-for agents. I think that research on canine behavior may be particularly susceptible to this.”

I have to conclude that LCK knows very little about science or else he would not call it “Western science;” there is no more western science that there is western gravity. There is no Eastern science, Chinese science, or Brazilian science, no Christian science, Muslim science or Hindu science. It’s just science.

Scientists know that things don’t happen in isolation. No scientist in any field is pretending that the particular subject of their study is occurring in some other universe, immune to external and internal forces and processes characteristic to that phenomena.

Below is a schematic illustration of cyclic adenosine monophosphate signalling pathways.

cAMP Signalling Pathways
credit: SABiosiciences

Each step was worked on in isolation even though it often works in “synergy” with other “unseen agents.”  Without a doubt, there is a lot to add to this schematic including Kelley’s “unaccounted-for agents” but that doesn’t mean that what we know it’s wrong or “invalid“. It’s just incomplete. Human knowledge will always be incomplete, we are not omniscient.

Maybe Kelley has a secret method to see the unseen and account the unaccounted; if so he should share it with the world.

Scientists understand the importance of isolating variables.  Tenth graders solving systems of equations also understand the importance of isolating variables. And if you are a clicker trainer then you understand the power of isolating variables. It’s the 2nd Law of Shaping.

2.  Train one aspect of any particular behavior at a time. Don’t try to shape for two criteria simultaneously

Kelley also objects to the authors’ conclusion that self-control resulted in risky behavior.

“However, as a dog trainer I have some reservations about the idea that the dogs who spent more time in the part of the room where another dog who was being held (securely behind two barriers,) is evidence that they were engaging in a risk-taking behavior.”

If this was the one and only experiment on risky behavior and self-control Kelley might actually have some cause to question the results. But the literature is rich with examples of altered behavior including increased risk taking. (Freeman N 2010)

The results of this study with dogs just reinforce previous findings of a common mechanism and effect in humans and dogs. Miller writes “These findings provide the first evidence that self-control relies on the same limited energy resource among humans and nonhumans”.(Miller 2010)

Dogs are highly social animals. They have a relentless need to be part of a group. Did the dogs approach the strange, “aggressive” dog because a) their impulse control was depleted or b) because they were, or c) a little of both?”

Isaac Newton had the answer to Kelley’s question.

“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore, to the same natural effects we must, so far as possible, assign the same causes.”

In other words, we don’t need to invent “relentless need” or a “drive to connect” when we already have a working explanation in hand. These are the kinds of constructs a fiction writer uses when they paint themselves into a corner. Science doesn’t have that luxury.

If Lee Charles Kelley wants to write about science then it’s time he put away the tools of a fiction writer.


Miller HC, DeWall CN, Pattison K , Molet M and Zentall TR (2012) Too dog tired to avoid danger: Self-control depletion in canines increases behavioral approach toward an aggressive threat. Psychon Bull Rev. 2012 Jun;19(3):535-40.
DOI: 10.3758/s13423-012-0231-0

Freeman N, Muraven M (2010) Self-Control Depletion Leads to Increased Risk Taking.  Social Psychological and Personality Science April 2010 vol. 1 no. 2 175-181.  DOI: 10.1177/1948550609360421

Miller HC, Pattison KF, DeWall CN, Rayburn-Reeves R, Zentall TR.  (2010) Self-control without a “self”?: common self-control processes in humans and dogs.  Psychol Sci. 2010 Apr;21(4):534-8.


2 thoughts on “Dogs and Self Control…again.

  1. I always read you posts and when they refer to other trainers… I am waiting to read about the one that says he asks the dogs a question, and they tell him the answer. What some of these people presume always amazes me. I did like the scientist stating ‘Western science’, as opposed to what? He had to be comparing it, but to what science.

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