THE BLOG
10/17/2014 10:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do You Know Your Dog's Emotional IQ?

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In my last post, I opened a discussion on the emotional life of dogs, sharing one of my favorite books on the subject, Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin. In her book, she spotlights a study by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp in which he lists key emotions common to all mammals. In Part One, I began with two: Seeking and Play. According to Dr. Panksepp, these happy centers can only exist when a mammal -- here a dog -- is content and comfortable in his surroundings.

Now for the other three: fear, frustration and panic. Though those may seem dark by comparison, there are healthy levels of fear and frustration that you may use creatively in your educational endeavors with your dog. The key word being "healthy levels." When a dogs fear or frustration become unbearable they can morph into rage or panic and leave a dog no other outlet than to use aggression to relieve these intense emotions. Yikes!

Fear

I'm no stranger to this emotion and I don't like it. Whenever I feel fear, I try to alleviate it by finding a solution or a displacement activity that helps distract me or calm me down. I pet my dogs or cats, nibble on some candy or reach out to my unflappable husband... sometimes all three at once. It usually works.

When your dog is afraid, he may express some or all of the reactions studied by Panksepp and Grandin. Fearful dogs retreat, posture and/or avoid. Some of my clients unintentionally scare their dogs by shouting or chasing -- not good! Yes, your dog may look guilty or run away in what appears like play, but fear causes a dog to seek a new location or routine to relieve the stress. I had a client who firmly believed that his dog loved it when they roughhoused together... until the dog bit him. When they reenacted this behavior in my office, it took all my professional restraint not to shout STOP and put the man in a full body hold. But I videotaped the encounter to show the dog's fear. The dog tried avoiding and posturing to no avail and it took an aggressive response to get his owner to back off. It took a lot to rehabilitate this relationship.

When dogs or cats feel threatened by their person -- even when a fear reaction is not intended -- they develop set behavior patterns to reestablish a more loving connection. Many roll over submissively; some tinkle (an innate response to excitement and respect) and others try to flee.

When nothing else works, some bite or scratch.

Many trainers use a negative-reinforcement, fear-based pattern to influence reactions and training. These trainers insist that dominance is the only effective way to influence behavior. If a dog or puppy doesn't obey, it is kneed, squeezed, or jerked. When it responds correctly, it is rewarded. This type of training can be immediately effective -- personally, I would do anything to avoid pain and fear- but it often breaks down over time.

Bottom line? It isn't that training should be fun -- it's that it can be fun. When I was a kid, I was smitten with a scientist named Dr. David Mech. He went into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to study wolves. What he found debunked the dominance pack mentality: he found that natural packs were an intricate grouping of parents and various generations of cubs.

I believe that training isn't about dominance and control; it's about parenting and responsibility. Parents direct children, children listen (most of the time) and feel safer when they have a good role model at the helm. Training boils down to teaching our human language as a second language to dogs, and using the effective parenting skills -- praise and positive reinforcement-to influence the next generation!

Stay tuned to my blog for a multi-part mini-series about one dog who began life isolated and alone, suffered extreme separation anxiety, but who was rescued and ended up as part of my pack!

Frustration and Rage

Which came first, frustration or rage? Though there is a clear dividing line between these two emotions, Dr. Panksepp points out that they stem from the same core emotional center in the brain. A feeling of entrapment -- being captured or held against one's will -- generates rage while mental discontent generates frustration. If you've ever lost your keys or been mystified by your computer, you've felt frustration. It's less likely that you've been held against your will but imagine it if you will: that's rage.

When a dog wants to explore and is forbidden to do so, he may exhibit intolerance. Imagine holding a two-year old tight to your chest in room full of toys and you'll get the idea. When you restrain a dog so tightly that he cannot walk comfortably, breath easily or explore and sniff his environment, he may get reactive and defensive when approached by a strange dog or human.

Other situations elicit frustration (no matter what your species): being trapped indoors when you want to get outdoors, secured in a car while your senses are stimulated, or prevented from reaching a toy or food source. As a dog trainer, I work to teach the dogs English as a Second Language so I can redirect a dog caught in these reactionary routines.

Interestingly, frustration is not always the enemy. I often use moderate levels of frustration to encourage good behavior, like withholding a treat until a dog is calm or a puppy sits, or waiting to release a dog to greet a visitor until they look to me, grab a toy or settle down.

Frustration and Rage

Which came first, frustration or rage? Though there is a clear dividing line between these two emotions, Dr. Panksepp points out that they stem from the same core emotional center in the brain. A feeling of entrapment -- being captured or held against one's will -- generates rage while mental discontent generates frustration. If you've ever lost your keys or been mystified by your computer, you've felt frustration. It's less likely that you've been held against your will but imagine it if you will: that's rage.

When a dog wants to explore and is forbidden to do so, he may exhibit intolerance. Imagine holding a two-year-old tight to your chest in room full of toys and you'll get the idea. When you restrain a dog so tightly that he cannot walk comfortably, breath easily or explore and sniff his environment, he may get reactive and defensive when approached by a strange dog or human.

Other situations elicit frustration (no matter what your species): being trapped indoors when you want to get outdoors, secured in a car while your senses are stimulated, or prevented from reaching a toy or food source. As a dog trainer, I work to teach the dogs English as a Second Language so I can redirect a dog caught in these reactionary routines.

Interestingly, frustration is not always the enemy. I often use moderate levels of frustration to encourage good behavior, like withholding a treat until a dog is calm or a puppy sits, or waiting to release a dog to greet a visitor until they look to me, grab a toy or settle down.

Panic

This emotional center relates to social attachment and is the reason baby animals fuss so when separated from their caregivers. A dog who reacts frantically to being separated from other dogs or people is often experiencing some level of panic at being isolated from social interactions. Training routines help to calm a dog who might otherwise be undirected. Introduce commands to shape self-control, patience and impulse control especially as it relates to doors and greetings. If the behavior is destructive, seek out a behaviorist and consider medication to reduce the pet's stress level. Panic is a physiological reaction, and may need complimentary intervention.

In an up and coming blog, I'll post a quick way to test your dog's Emotional IQ -- or EQ. Stay tuned and join in the conversation by adding your comments now!