Making things up to control the environment is a large part of how the brain functions for animals and humans.
Research into both animal and human cognition has shown that when there is stress in the environment that may lead to harm or has a fearful component, or perhaps you just need to get active and move, the brain kicks into survival mode and attempts to make sense of the environmental context for control.
How often has the handler of reactive dogs thought they saw another dog in the distance and it turned out to be someone watching a child walking beside them, we simply did not see the child, just the human slightly bent over and looking like they may be walking a dog. Our brain moves into position for control by formulating pieces of those stimuli that look like a person possibly walking a dog and the brain mentally prepares us for potential action.
How often has someone thought and thought and thought on something until they started to believe it to be true only to find out after a Google search or from a verified source that in fact it was not true.
Often, the first learned thing about the environment for dogs is fear or apprehension, or caution to a certain degree. This is because animals are hard wired to attend to their environment for prey acquisition or self-preservation. How often has a dog appeared apprehensive or fearful over an innocuous injection of stimuli into the environment only to bounce back suddenly once they realize they are not in danger or the stimulus is not prey to catch or an enemy to avoid?
This false pattern occurs in many ways inside the brain and humans often create false narratives to make sense of the contexts we find ourselves and our dogs involved in, these are usually based on the narratives that have shaped our knowledge or our cultural experiences that supplied some form of learning about dogs.
So in essence garbage in garbage out, the trouble is this, what is worth taking in and what is worth dumping?
As far as information in one’s daily life that revolves around their inter personal interactions that is for them to figure out, as far as dogs go, that is something that can be helped instantaneously once the various hypotheses are vetted and shown that most are based on humans feelings and not actual behavioral information on why X Y Z is occurring with the dog.
A common assertion is that a dog is “aggressive”, when in fact they have no bite history and a very good social history with humans and dogs.
Assuredly the dog is barking and lunging at humans and dogs while on leash or from behind a barrier, the perspective and knowledge base of the human observer will determine just how accurately the behavior is being observed and then how effectively it is dealt with in an appropriate manner.
Sadly some humans resort to the “flood & force” methods of reducing behaviors. These approaches do not work effectively and the dog usually displays a set of behaviors associated with the stress of the environment, thus not learning but holding on, and sometimes even out of that context in other contexts the dog will display the same set of behaviors,, due to the dog being stopped by way of fear or pain, and not taught through properly sequencing the events. Dogs generalize fear easily as a matter of course, for survival. Adding stress will not help. This generalization of fear will spread like a wild fire if the humans try and tamp down the dog with force and flood methods.
Cognition and Stress
Stress wreaks havoc on memory. One area of the brain that is harmed from chronic stress is the hippocampus, which is a memory indexer and works as the storage of long-term memory and context. In addition the hippocampus has a major role in habituation and learning.
While some stress is good and a necessary part of life, and good stress can actually increase learning, like playing intensely with humans or dogs, done safely. However, many dogs and their guardians go through undue stress due to the narrative that the humans have about the dog.
Egregiously, some in culture have postulated that a dog must be “calm” and anything less than that state, which is nebulous at best, any un-calm state is an effrontery to their “masters” power or the dog is determined to have some behavioral abnormality that is causing the dog’s reactions. Really?
What people are usually not taking into account is the dog is usually subjected to a barrier of some kind and that is frustrating. Many dogs are socially compulsive with their own species, and really want to meet people or other dogs. When dogs are thwarted in some manner from exercising the Flight Fight Freeze responses they cannot fully engage.
Remember, dogs are hard wired to attend to changes in the environment in order to make sense of the changes in order to gain control. Many times the “approach avoid” toggle that dogs preform when not thwarted by barriers, are to find out how they feel about an event. The dog’s behavior is intricately based on what the stimulus is that they are interacting with and attempting to figure out. Additionally, dogs also many times simply cannot engage in events as they’d like due to the leash or a fence or being indoors, and they react by way of barking and carrying on looking “aggressive”, but they are not.
When the environment changes dogs process the stimuli as safe or unsafe, or neutral. This is largely processed by the amygdala, as well as the hippocampus. The Frontal Cortex is working on goal directed behavior and motor functions. It is interesting to note that the Frontal Cortex is sending signals to the amygdala trying to get the fear center to relax, and the amygdala is sending cautionary signals to the frontal cortex based on alerting the brain and body for action.
Understanding how the canine brain process information is helpful when doing behavior modification and or training of any kind as it allows the humans to have more insights as to how dogs are responding and feeling about the event.
The FC is the last part of the brain to fully develop; it is also the part of the brain least affected by genes. The Frontal Cortex is also the part of the brain that is most shaped in development by environment. There is much more dopamine flocculation in adolescent years, due to loss of reward or less reward than expected. Olfaction viscera equal FC distractions. Seeing as dogs are mainly being influenced by olfaction, it is easy to see how dogs get distracted so easily.
In the last blog I wrote about stress, I discussed Glucocorticoids (GLC) and how that stress hormone can wreak havoc on the brain and body,
The FC has some of the highest levels of GLC receptors. GLC atrophy neurons in the FC, and stress will affect the size and activity FC development. This is crucial for puppy development and adolescent dogs. This is why it is so crucial for puppies and adolescent dogs to have safe socializing experiences and lots of safe learning when it comes to training cues.
The Amygdala silences the FC in times of stress, so behavior becomes unregulated. The FC handles motor functions, complex movements and problem solving, and has a significant role in goal directed behavior, so we can see that it is crucial for dogs to have a very healthy FC.
Habituation and extinguishing behavior equals less amygdala and more frontal cortex activity. When the FC is destroyed or damaged, or some lesions have developed, the amygdala does not habituate to a learned response.
The damaged or hindered FC will prevent the learning of a new association, think slow to no desensitization or counter conditioning, despite proper behavioral modification when this occurs.
Counter Conditioning, Desensitization, Managing the Environment, how humans change behavior.
So we can see that in just a few areas of the brain there are many potentials for learning and or not learning, and it all depends on how the humans set the dog up both when breeding the dog and or when the guardians are training the dog.
Many events in life that signal a stress response for dogs are not stressful in the least, but the dog, due to how their autonomic nervous system is built to attend to sudden changes as a stress response, the dog will have some form of stress, or excitation. Some will not, but that may have more to do with age, and or perhaps the dog is just a relaxed soul. It happens.
It is crucial to note again, that the first learned association to many new environments or a new event is fearful or apprehensive, or perhaps hesitant and more observational than excited and approaching.
This does not mean that a pleasurable stimulus cannot override the initial fears, i.e. food reward, praise, distance, or that dog’s do not learn to ignore – habituate, or “bounce back” quickly, many do, and many more could if people would work to reduce stress as matter of course, then set about training.
The main thing that reduces stress for dogs and humans training dogs is implementing proper behavior modification that works to reduce stress not simply stop the dog from doing X Y Z.
Good “bounce back” from stressful events equals an animal that has good cortisol function. Slow bounce back equals poor cortisol function.
Glucocorticoids, (GLC’s) are stress hormones that in small amounts or when paired with “fun stress” like play are fine, but when there are too many of these stress hormone GLCs in the brain, it cannot dump them, hence “flooding”, and the build up is harmful.
The GLCs cause Beta Amyloid, a naturally occurring chemical in the brain to be toxic. This causes memory loss, immune disorders, and affects cognition in a negative way.
The second learned aspect of an environment could easily be a positive or even a less intense version of the event, a more manageable level of the stress. This acts as both a new learned experience and “padding” for the stress. Thus, in time the hippocampus, which is less flooded with GCL’s will have a more reliable retrieval of the event as positive and the sequences that are being taught more efficiently executed. Additionally when there is some form of consistent human intervention that reduces stress, the frontal cortex and amygdala have better chances of making proper choices, thus the dog is learning.
The second learned aspect of the environment or event might be additional fears. Often times intensity of the fear may increase with the stimulus hanging around for more duration, or perhaps become more salient, such as the person doing a greeting is now leaning over and reaching after they approached, and that has the dog flooded and thus the dog is fearful or reactive.
The take home is humans need to ensure they are as focused on their behavior as much or more so on the dog’s behavior. Once the dog has been assessed and people know what the dog is capable of in various contexts, then they should be focused on their behavior, the environment, as those are the two variables that need to be modulated for success with dogs in any context.
By adopting a non-force approach and learning about proper training mechanics and proper behavior modification, humans can do more in the way of helping dogs not merely having dogs. There is a huge difference in the two classifications of “having a dog” and “helping a dog”. Anyone that knows the difference, can easily say that when they set about to help the dog they achieved better results than simply giving in to the situations and resigning that the dog is “just like that”.
The difference I have found is the humans that are helping dogs are usually open, honest and humble as they gather info and implement it along the way. They want to do right by the dog and are invested in the work.
Far too many people hold onto “theories”, “myths”, “narratives”, and out right pseudo science and stay loyal to a “method” or a “trainer” and do not stay loyal to the dog. The proof is in the dog, this is not just a matter of has the dog stopped behavior, but what has been conditioned in place of it and how?
Has this behavior change occurred by way of fear and learned helplessness, or by way of shaping and conditioning the dog to confidently take control of the environment and process that they are safe and start to looking to their humans for guidance? Hopefully so.
In the end the results are always in the dog’s behavior and the dog’s health, soundness and joy they bring to their tasks in life. When those aspects of a dog’s life are optimum, then humans by design or default are on the right path and most likely are engaged and the dog is really learning and shining.
That is the goal, for dogs and humans to shine at their highest levels. Then we can say that is what is really happening, and mean it.
Train safe! Train fun! Train everyday! Your dog wants you to anyway!
Thanks for reading!