Amazing Restraint

In Alberta’s Marshmallow Test, I described Alberta’s admirable ability to resist temptation in the form of a bowl of dog biscuits sitting alongside a water bowl outside a Michigan store. While I know personally of the hard work Alberta (and Deni) have invested in honing Alberta’s ability to resist food temptations, I also know that all dogs (with the possible exception of Cali) really are capable of learning self-restraint.
This ability is, I believe, evidence of their ability to understand what is the “right” thing to do in particular circumstances. It is certainly evidence that not all dog behavior is hard-wired or instinctive.
Some examples include dogs who learn not to take food from counters, tabletops, and plates, even when those are tantalizingly within reach. I could leave a steak dinner on the coffee table (at Jana’s nose level) and go out for an hour. If she knew that was not her food, it would all still be sitting there when I got back. Leaving it alone with impulsive youngster Cali would be a different matter, however.
An even more important example, and something anyone who lives near a road with traffic or who takes the dog for car rides should work on, is waiting at doorways. When we drive to the dog beach or park, the dogs are very excited. But even Cali, who is probably wriggling with excitement, has learned not to exit the car without explicit permission. And Jana and Cali have both learned never to bolt out the front door, not matter how seductively the park across the street beckons, no matter how many cats, UPS delivery people and mail carriers are passing by … no matter what.
I argue that these are examples of dogs “doing the right thing” because I know that they are not afraid of being punished and that these efforts are rarely rewarded. Well, at the dog beach, they do get to go play — but even when someone slips up, the worst consequence is that she’s sternly instructed to get back in the car and wait, and then released a minute later to play. The girls are not following the rules because they think they will be horribly punished if they do not. They are not expecting any significant reward, especially for resisting the impulse to run out the front door. They are doing what they know is expected of them in these common situations for no reason other than they know that it is the rule.
In fact, we ask dogs to resist behavior that comes naturally to them all the time. We ask them not to chew and lick at their itchy spots. We ask them to resist humping other dogs. We ask them not to bark at the neighbors or the mail carrier, even when he is invading their turf. We ask them to ignore food (and things they consider food) on the ground, to not chase cats and squirrels encountered on walks, and to walk nicely on a leash.
We do ask a lot of them, don’t we? And most dogs, most of the time, live up to our very high expectations. Especially if we practice with them and do reward them sometimes.
I think that we humans take it for granted that dogs should follow our very human-centered rules. I am suggesting that we look at things from their point of view once in a while, recognize how truly counter-intuitive it is for a dog to resist food that is just sitting there or to abstain from chasing that cat out of the yard. We need to recognize that our dogs pass their own marshmallow tests, every day, many times a day — and reward their efforts with praise and pats and, at least occasionally, yummy treats to reward their restraint.

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