THE BLOG
09/24/2014 01:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Emotional Life of Dogs

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Image from Teach Yourself Visually Dog Training by Sarah Hodgson, Wiley and Sons 2006

I'm a big fan of Temple Grandin. I think she has done more to explain the human/dog bond than all the celebrity dog trainers combined.

I recently re-read her book Animals Make Us Human. While she frequently focuses on livestock, the sensitivity she shows to all animals, no matter their fate, is enriching. Her compassion inspires me and impacts how I relate to both my clients and my children.

Early on in the book, she sets the framework on which the rest of the book is laid. She talks about studies on the mammalian brain by the neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp. I bought his book, Affective Neuroscience, The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions and wish I had a college course to help me digest it, but the foundations are clear. Dr. Panksepp cites seven "Blue Ribbon" emotion systems that are at the root of all mammalian behavior: Seeking-Play-Fear Frustration- Panic-Lust-Caring. Following Ms. Grandins' lead, I'm going to elaborate on how these concepts have influenced the way this dog trainer relates to and positively influences her clients-both people and dogs. There are seven emotion systems but I'm leaving out the emotions relating to reproduction. They're important and interesting but - and I hope this goes without saying -they don't really come into play when I'm training dogs.

Seeking
Panksepp and Grandin both refer to this one as the "Master Emotion"--the one that motivates life in general and I agree. From my less lofty podium, I
call it the "For me, for me!" center. It motivates all of us animals to want, desire
and explore. Wondering what present you'll get this holiday season? Excited
to go to a party or fair? Does the smell of good food make you salivate? The seeking emotion is in play.

In my dog training practice, I often employ a "Stay Calm" paradigm. When a dog is doing something frustrating (e.g. jumping, chewing or pulling on leash) I encourage clients to think through the scenario ahead of time and stay calm in the moment. Together we recognize what may be prompting the reaction and offer alternative ways for the dog/puppy to express himself. Here's a quick overview:

  1. Figure out the motivation: is the puppy jumping to reach something or get attention? Is he chewing because he's teething, he's bored or trying to get your attention? Is he barking because he hears or sees something, is frustrated or trying to get your attention?
  2. Next, shift your focus to change the dog/puppy's orientation. Identify some favorite foods or activities, putting each on separate cue, like "treat" or "ball." Hold each positive lure out separately and say the word as you offer it to your dog/puppy. Once your puppy makes the connection between the word and the reward, use one of these prompts to direct or redirect his routines. The word choice is endless and can be modified based on the action that's aggravating you or you're trying to encourage. "Go dig!" can alert a dog to a new area; "Kisses!" can be taught to redirect nippiness; "Belly Up!" can help shape calmer greeting responses.
  3. Use Positive Reinforcement. There is no greater reward for the seeking emotion than getting what you desire. And that's true no matter what your species!

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Image from Teach Yourself Visually Dog Training by Sarah Hodgson, Wiley and Sons 2006

Play
Happy dogs love to play, and there are few greater rewards for a dog than the time you give them to engage in fun. Creative play -- what I call play training -- encourages routines that help a dog or puppy learn impulse control. For some dogs chasing is fun--and that's good up to a point. If a dog gets too excited, she may start to jump and nip. One technique I use to encourage self-control is to play with treat cups. First I shake the cup and teach my student that she can have a treat when she grounded calmly on all fours and/or sits back on her haunches. Next I use the treat cup in play, shaking it for example, as I encourage chasing. When I stop, I say "Wait" and encourage her to stop and sit for a reward.

Lots of dogs love to tug. If you've got a tugger, teach her a release word before you get too involved in a game you can't win. Fetch may seem like the Great American Dog Activity, some dogs just don't go for it and sometimes a puppy is just too young to understand the concept of sharing ("drop"). If you've got a young pup or a non-retriever, try two-toy tosses. Toss the first toy--when your pup reaches that one and turns around, praise her, but immediately shake the other toy and play with that. Which toy do you think your puppy will want? Right- the one you're holding!

Incorporating play into your normal daily routine is one of the most important elements of good dog training. When dogs have fun they'll want to be around you and pay more attention to the routines you emphasize. Quoting from Animals in Translation: "Playful animals express happiness and when directed appropriately, display fewer behavior problems." Look at the photo of the dogs playing- note what they use is place of hands! That's right- their mouth!

Here's a pattern I've noticed in my work with rescue/shelter dogs: When adult dogs are adopted out of a shelter, it routinely takes 2-6 weeks in a new home to express playful behavior. Why? Because dogs only play when fear and frustration are kept to a minimum. Being dropped off and living in a dog shelter is both scary and frustrating, especially if you're the calm dog kenneled next to an assertive dog, or if your shelter limits your freedom to a kennel run.

When I'm called in to help a shelter dog or puppy transfer into a new home, I encourage routines that stimulate safe seeking activities (e.g. giving the dogs freedom to explore on a long line or in a fenced enclosure) and limit the pet's exposure to fear and frustration. Fortunately there are creative ways to encourage behavior and discourage reactivity- techniques that offer guidance, conditioning and positive reinforcement instead of punishments. Playing is a sign of contentment and healthy bonding.

Can you guess what the other three emotions are? You'll know soon enough. Tune in for my next post on "Your Dog's 5 Key Emotional Centers, part two!"