Sunday, March 4, 2012

What is Self Control Really?

Wikipedia defines Self control as the ability to control one's emotions, behavior and desires in order to obtain some reward, or avoid some punishment, later. Presumably, some (smaller) reward or punishment is operating in the short term which precludes, or reduces, the later reward or punishment.

This article Self Control and Aggression got me thinking about what it is I'm training a dog to do when I'm calling it Self Control or Impulse Control. As the article points out, a possible conclusion based on a study in the Journal of Consumer Research "Research has shown that exerting self-control makes people more likely to behave aggressively...” I've experienced this all too many times myself when on a diet or trying to put myself on a daily exercise routine.

Is what I'm doing really "self control" or something else? According to the Wikipedia definition it is. I am trying to control my behavior and desires in order to lose weight or gain muscle and stamina. In doing the diet or the exercise I'm also avoiding some punishment - poor health and huge medical bills later in life. But both processes seem to generate self hate, irritability and a lack of emotional and impulse control with other parts of life.

Sarah brought into play a new concept in her article above - self denial. Are self control, impulse control and self denial all the same? Is dieting self denial or self control? Is formal exercise a form of punishment and a reflection of self hate or exerting control over one's health?

Personally, I've found that formal exercise, where you do a similar routine with exercise equipment or running a circuit is more a form of punishment then it is a form of self control. I would much rather play a game of volley ball, take a hike or hit the beach and body surf for an hour. I get the same exercise, but the rewards are more tangible, it's fun and engaging and I have to problem solve while playing. Formal exericse may take a huge amount of controlling ones emotions and desires in order to get through your routine, but there is no fun, no mental stimulatioin and rarely any immediate rewards. Dieting is the same.

So where does this get us with creating self control in a dog? Is it really self control we are creating or something else? The second question I asked myself was "are we really controlling our emotions, or are we just suppressing them and that is why they come out in other situations so violently"?

If you read down further in the Wikipedia definition of self control you find a scientific definition based on reinforcement and consequences., motivation and the emotional state necessary to succeed. This I think is more defining of what we do with a dog then just "self control".

Any particular dog has many instinctive motivations to do what they do - finding food, finding mates, feeling safe during rest, not wasting energy on unproductive activities and interaction with others. The consciously or unconsciously controls his environment in order to provide for himself the necessities of survival. Living with humans is an artificial environment and most of the necessities of survival are provided by the humans - usually in abundance.

So, what are we doing when we teach a dog to sit, to stay, to come or heel or lay down? Are we teaching them self control or control by human? Most of you who know me know that I don't agree that obedience teaches self control. It teaches the dog to do what the human asks because of the consequences that occur when they don't. The rewards in traditional obedience training are few and not necessarily what a dog would consider a reward or even reinforcement and definitely not a necessity.


I am helping a Guide Dog puppy raiser with her current lab puppy right now. She brought me the training plan that the organization she is "raising" for recommends. It is full of silliness as far as I'm concerned and only teaches a dog to be wary of the handler, the consequences and that life isn't really very fun. No food by hand, only a gentle pat or praise as a reward, no tugging, no balls, no free play with other dogs. But it is also full of platitudes about pack leaders, instilling self control, controlling the dogs impulses and "guiding" them to be a service dog.

Where is the self control in that? All I see is a strict, fenced in existence for a dog. Sure the dog is helping a human, but does a dog really have the capacity to understand the important job he's doing and feel fullfilled about it? I seriously doubt it. Yes, dogs love jobs, but those jobs either need to be fun, mentally and physically challenging or provide for the basics of life. Dogs do what gets them what they want or what avoids pain and death. All I see in this "training guide" is the avoidance of pain and death and over the years I've had to bring many many service dogs back to balance.

Back to a dog's motivations - food, mates, social interaction, safety and conservation of energy.

Conservation of energy plays a huge part of what I train in the name of self control. Most dogs, when confronted by a human that has food in their hand and keeps withholding it, will try jumping, lunging, biting, barking and many other strategies for getting that food - mostly assertive methods. Not very energy conscious types of activities. But these methods are what are hard wired into a puppy in order to get an adult to feed them by vomiting up whatever they ate that day. Eventually, the adult dogs teach the puppy to tend to his own necessities and those methods of "begging" are extinguished.

Not so in the human world. Humans tend to let a pup continue those activities and then complain about them when the pup is a 90 lb menace. Humans need to show their pups the same thing they would be learning from the adult dogs in their social group - how to provide for themselves with the least amount of energy expended. In our world that means learning manners about food, doors, cars, walks, guests, cats and other things found in the human existence. The pup needs to learn how to use it's energy to control this environment in order to get it's neeeds met.

Using It's Yer Choice, Crate Games, Space Games, Reorienting, Heeling exercises and all the other games I use in the various classes I teach, show the dog how to manipulate her environment in ways that please the humans in her life and still meet her needs, stay safe, avoid pain and death and still have fun.

Not self control, just conservation of energy, awareness of the environment and the things and other beings in it, awareness of other determinism and self determinism and how they can work together to create a life worth living.

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