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Marshmallow Tests for Dogs

A guide dog partner, Deni Elliott, devised a dog version of the marshmallow test for her guide dog. She administered it to her guide Alberta a few years ago. Alberta did well; she actually did many of the things that children who take the marshmallow test do — she looked away, she distracted herself. She didn’t use her toes as a piano or sing a song, but she did distract herself from temptation. In her case, temptation was a bowl full of dog cookies.

We were delighted with her response, and, accepting much of the conventional understanding of the marshmallow test, believed that it indicated strong self-restraint and the ability to delay gratification.

Alberta unfortunately had to retire last year, and Deni got a new guide, Koala. Both girls were raised and trained by Guiding Eyes, in Yorktown Heights, NY; both are bright, funny, smart Labradors.

Koala does not seem to be a dog with much self-restraint. She exudes enthusiasm and energy. I, for one, did not think she would fare well on the test. Indeed, she bounced excitedly around the room while Deni and an assistant set up and filled the bowl. The test consisted of putting Koala in a hallway with her guide harness on, placing the bowl of cookies nearby, and telling her to leave it. Deni and the assistant then went into the office, where Koala could not see them but they could watch her through the window blinds.

What happened?

Koala aced the test! She looked at the cookies, glanced away, then looked intently at the bowl for the duration of the test (5 minutes). She did not even need to distract herself!

Walter Mischel, the psychologist who originated the test, wrote a book about it a few years ago; he also was interviewed in The Atlantic. The topic of both book and interview was some common misunderstandings about the test.

Mischel said that it is less about self-control than about achievement and making choices. It’s also, to some extent, about how and when a person (or dog) chooses to exercise self-restraint, not whether she can. Finally, related studies demonstrate a phenomenon called willpower fatigue; exercising self-control takes cognitive energy. Using that energy on one task means you have less of it available for other tasks, whether they are cognitive tasks or exercising self-restraint.

Maybe Koala would do less well on the marshmallow test after navigating Deni through a strange airport, hotel, and restaurant than she did in the morning on her home turf.

To bring this around to dog training…

Alberta and Koala both had excellent training and socialization. They were also both taught the “leave it” cue. The original children tested were from affluent, educated families. These children, as well as Koala and Alberta, had some respect for and trust in authority figures (and the testers made sure that the children were tested, as were the dogs, by a familiar person). These circumstances set up a person or dog to succeed. A random puppy pulled from a shelter pen by a stranger would likely not fare so well on the test.

Mischel told The Atlantic, “ What we do when we get tired is heavily influenced by the self-standards we develop and that in turn is strongly influenced by the models we have.”

In other words, when we’re challenged, we fall back on our training and experience.

When we teach puppies to sit quietly, even if only for a few seconds, before they get to eat or greet someone, or we teach them to wait at doorways and before jumping out of a car, we’re teaching them manners and protecting their safety. We’re also giving them models and a basis to form “self-standards” that include self-restraint.

We’ll always see individual variations in how well people (and dogs) practice self-restraint; it will always seem easier for some than others. Is Koala a “better” dog because she didn’t have to work as hard as Alberta? Is she more obedient ? (No!) More — or less — intelligent? After reading the interview with Dr. Mischel, I don’t think that the test tells us any of that. It does tell us that training helps a dog make good decisions, and that making those decisions comes more easily to some individuals than to others — or to any of us at some times than at others.

For trainers, that reinforces the importance of teaching cues like “leave it” and “wait” and reinforcing them throughout a dog’s life. But it’s also a reminder that training isn’t everything; we all experience willpower fatigue sometimes. Chocolate chip cookie, anyone?

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