If you’ve ever seen a dog knock their owner to the ground to chase a squirrel or jump on a counter to steal food, you may find yourself wondering if dogs have any sort of impulse control.
After having similar experiences with the dogs in his life, Neurobiologist Gregory S. Berns
wondered the same thing. Fortunately for us, he has access to the tools necessary to get to the bottom of whether or not dogs have the ability for self-control.
Since 2012, Dr. Berns and his team have been focused on advancing the field of neuroimaging in awake, unrestrained dogs. Dogs who participate in their studies are trained to go into MRI machines and sit completely still.
For anyone who has ever had an MRI before, you know how challenging it is to remain perfectly still, so imagine trying to get a dog to do it!
Since the dogs are not supposed to be moving around during the scans, Dr. Berns and his team have adopted a passive approach to creating brain activity. Once in the MRI machine, the dogs are presented with a stimulus, such as a scent, sound, pictures, or hand signals, and the corresponding brain activity is measured.
However, to study self-control, the team needed to find a way for the dogs to perform a behavior without excessive movement. To do this, Dr. Berns and his team used a psychological test designed for children called a Go-NoGo test. Prior to the study, a group of dogs were taught specific commands for Go and NoGo.
For the Go condition, dogs were taught to nose poke a target in response to a whistle. In the NoGo condition, dogs were taught to recognize that arms crossed in an X means no nose poke even if they hear a whistle. As you can imagine this wasn’t an easy task; training a dog to perform this behavior well enough to do it in an MRI machine took between 2-4 months of preparation.
When the dogs were consistently completing the task with 80% accuracy, it was time to see if they did, in fact, have self-control. When the dogs were asked to perform the NoGo task, the MRI captured the area of the brain that inhibited the nose poke behavior.
Through the MRI, Dr. Berns and his team found that impulse control in both humans and dogs is controlled by the prefrontal lobes, but in dogs this area is much smaller relative to brain size. Furthermore, when the dogs were asked to perform the NoGo task, those that completed it successfully saw much more brain activity in this frontal lobe.
What this means is that there is an actual link between the level of self-control a dog has and the behavior they display. In other words, dogs that have more brain activity in their frontal lobes, therefore more self-control, are better able to control their behaviors.
This study gives us great insight into how self-control in dogs takes place, but further research is needed to determine why some dogs have more brain activity than others. Once we know this, we might be able to find a way to improve its functioning through training.
This is important, as biting is a common and serious consequence of a dog’s lack of self-control. If we are able to determine why some dogs lack self-control and bite we might able to prevent its occurrence.
Until then, try not to blame your dog too much if they do something that suggests a complete lack of self-control; they might not be able to help it!
H/t to Psychology Today