Understanding, predicting and influencing dog behavior can be a complex process. Not everything that influences behavior is visible to our eyes and not all dog behavior is driven by functional consequenses. Some pathological forms of behavior are not functional, for example. Physical discomfort is not always visible to our eyes, for example. The dog brain is a complex organ and the central nervous systems of dogs are not only influenced by antecedents and consequences that are visible to us.
Deep within the dog brain, there are many neurological survival mechanisms, which some neuroscientists call circuits, others call them systems, others call them emotions. Scientists do not yet agree on one definition for what emotions are, exactly. Some neuroscientists have done research which suggests that there are fixed emotional systems that have fixed positions within the brain areas with fixed responses that are the same within the brains of all mammals. Others have done research that suggests that these systems are not fixed at all, but that responses are very flexible and individual and keep evolving as the brain never stops evolving during an entire lifetime. The truth, most likely, is somewhere in between all the many different theories that are currently being backed up by the latest science. Like many things in science, things are usually gray, rather than just black or white.
A healthy dog brain is constantly assessing, analyzing, anticipating and responding in a way to best benefit the welfare of that individual dog at that time. To do this, it needs to process information and because it can’t process all information at once, it will need to constantly shift in focus and remember certain important survival-based features of the information and respond quickly (through memory and learning). The brain is not only processing information coming from the outside, but also information coming from inside of the body. Healthy mammals will constantly adjust their responses to what suits their body best at that time. This is not always visible to us.
Now this sounds complicated and I don’t want to complicate things with this article. If you want to seriously ‘geek out’, I can recommend many books (of Panksepp, LeDoux, Feldman-Barrett, Mills, Bekhoff, de Waal and many more), but I wrote this article with another purpose: I’d like to improve the welfare of dogs. To do that I do want to highlight just four of the most important emotional categories that we humans share with our dogs. I would not want to state that humans experience everything in the same way as dogs do (experience remains something individual). But these categories and similar behavioral responses can be seen in humans and dogs and because of this, it can help humans to understand dog behavior AND encourage more empathy towards dogs.
Behavior driven by negative feelings of physical discomfort/pain is aimed at preventing (more) damage to the body and at increasing comfort. Examples are changed body posture and/or movement, avoidance, aggression (in order to make sure that potential discomforting stimuli keep their distance or disappear), vocalizations or excessive self-grooming. In most cases, the help of specialists (vets, physiotherapists or others who are specialized in body and movement) is needed to address behavior problems that are being caused by or related to feelings of physical discomfort.
Because dogs can show avoidance behaviors when they feel discomfort, humans have created tools which cause dogs discomfort/pain in order for them to avoid behaviors that are unwanted by humans. Some controversial examples are pinch collars, shock collars or choke chains. People are gradually starting to realize that these tools can seriously threaten the welfare of dogs and that, though many dogs will show avoidance, some dogs can respond with aggression (which can also be driven by discomfort), making these tools not only harmful for dogs, but also a threat to the safety of other animals in the environment (including humans) when they increase the risk of aggression.
Fear can drive dog behavior in order to protect the dog from (potential) threats to itself. It is closely related to ‘anxiety’ where a dog behaves very anxious, worried, anticipating threats which are not present. Examples of behavior that can be driven by fear are the freeze, flight or fight responses, which can all be functional forms of self defense. Dogs can show avoidance, aggression or shutting down and not showing any responses in order to make a threat stop.
For thousands of years, probably longer (and this is still popular), we humans have been using the activation of fear in dogs in order to influence their behavior to our liking. Fear can quickly result in a dog stopping (freezing or avoiding) unwanted behavior. It is only in the past decades that many of us humans have come to realize that this can threaten the welfare of dogs and that it is potentially dangerous as fear can also result in aggressive responses. Research keeps confirming that training techniques which result in a fearful response (i.e. raising your voice, an intimidating form of sustained eye contact or a threatening body posture) can increase the risk of problem behaviors such as aggression towards humans.
Behavior driven by frustration can be aimed at accessing and/or keeping access to resources that are important to the dog (i.e. food, toys, a comfortable resting spot, etc..), but frustration can also arise when expectations are not being met (i.e. when the dog is strongly expecting a reward and this is not achieved) or the dog when the dog has limited control over it’s own movement (i.e. while on leash or when behind barriers).
Frustration can drive behavior such as whimpering, barking, nipping, pawing, biting, pushy behavior (often confused with the popular but mostly misused term ‘dominance’) and other forms of aggression.
‘Resource guarding’ can be a form of frustration driven aggression, but this may also be a form of fear driven aggression, depending on the situation and the history of all the individuals involved. This is one of the many reasons that this quote of professor Daniel Mills is one of my favorites: “The behavior is not the diagnosis”.
This category consists of positive feelings that drive dog behavior to access important resources like food. Now these positive feelings can actually drive aggressive behavior too which is the case during prey drive aggression (this is a form of silent, concentrated aggression). But behavior that is rewarded with food is also driven by the same type of positive feelings. When a dog knows how to achieve rewards, it will show the behavior with pleasure and positive expectations.
Because these feelings are so strong and so positive, humans are now using this to train dogs. Using food as a reward in dog training and making these rewards achievable, will activate pleasure (and reward circuits) within the dogs brain. Dogs can become strongly motivated to cooperate and show desired behaviors, remaining in a positive emotional state.
It is important to note that in order for this emotional state stay positive, the dog must know how to achieve the rewards, because if this is not clear, the dog brain can switch from pleasure to frustration. That is why timing and good training skills are important in order to keep training safe and beneficial to the welfare of all involved.
© LotsDogs | Written by Liselot Boersma, dog welfare & behavior consultant (PgDip CABW) and owner of LotsDogs, september 2015; translated in 2020. Copy paste of images or text is forbidden. Sharing the URL of this website is very much appreciated. Many thanks in advance.
- de Waal, F. (2017) Are we smart enought to know how smart animals are?
- Feldman-Barrett, L. (2016) The Handbook of Emotions, Fourth Edition
- LeDoux, J. (2016) Anxious - Using the brain to understand and treat fear and anxiety
- Bekhoff, M, Goodall, J. (2008) - The Emotional Lives of Animals
- Kolb, B. & Whishaw (2011). An Introduction to brain and behavior 3rd edition.
- Mills, D., Braem Dube, M., Zulch, H. (2013). Stress and Pheromonatherapy in Small Animal Clinical Behaviour.
- Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience
Based in the Netherlands, Westbeemster
Dog Welfare & Behaviour consultant