Mark's Dog Blog

A dogs emotional awareness, and its cognitive ability to control its emotions

I raise this subject quite often, because it is so important to understand. Dogs are not consciously aware of their current emotional state, and therefore have no way to consciously moderate or control their emotions. I'll try and explain in this article.
What happens when we are anxious because we are running late for an important appointment, and we get caught up in slow moving traffic? Emotions are triggered. We start getting frustrated. If we now allow frustration to build unchecked, it will most probably transform into anger. If we then allow the emotion of anger to take control, it may then even turn in to aggression, road rage. When we allow ourselves to get to this level emotionally we have gone past the ability to take control of our emotional state, and the emotion is now totally controlling our actions. The type and level of reaction to an event or situation is always dictated by the current emotional state, and its current strength, whether that be for us humans or our dogs. Humans, due to being self aware, and being able to understand our current emotional state, and understand why the current state we find themselves in is being triggered, can consciously focus on calming or changing our emotional state. Dogs do not have this cognitive ability.
When your dog is anxious on a walk, and is pulling you down the street, its no different to you being anxious in the car because you are running late for that appointment. The tension on the lead is equivalent to you being stuck in slow moving traffic, and being held back from where you want to go.
Dogs unlike humans are not aware of their emotional changes, or why they are even triggered, they just react according to their current emotional state. A dog cannot reason for itself, and say, "Rover, just calm yourself down, and stop pulling on the lead", as it has no understanding of why it finds itself in that state, or that there is even anything wrong with feeling that way.
Most on lead aggression usually has its origins due to an overly anxious dog being walked on lead, pulling their owner along with them. This is why when taking your young dog for a walk on lead, we need to focus on and condition calm walking, and also more importantly, we NEVER allow the dog to pull us anywhere, especially towards other dogs and people. Allowing your dog to pull you to other dogs or people in most cases will firstly trigger an anxious state in the dog. This can then lead to frustration, as the dog can't get to the other dog as quickly as it wants too. Now what happens after repeatedly allowing the dog to pull us towards other dogs or people, triggering not only an anxious state, but also frustration, and we then start restraining our dog from pulling us to other dogs and people? Of course, frustration must build, as the dog has no understanding of why it now can't get to where it wants to go. Very quickly over time this frustration can then build, transforming into an aggressive reaction.
What would happen if every time you jumped in your car and you were feeling anxious because you are always running late, and then every single time you were caught up in traffic? Well through the process of classical conditioning, eventually every time you got into the car you would instantly be triggered into an anxious state of mind. Now what would eventually happen if every time you drove in this anxious state you found yourself caught up in slow moving traffic? Well chances are eventually just getting into the car would trigger anger. It may, if repeated enough times consistently, program the brain to be instantly angry whenever you got into the car to go somewhere. This may not happen so easily with humans, as we are very aware of our current emotional state, and can if we feel ourselves becoming too emotional, choose to focus on calming our self. We also understand what's triggering this state. But for dogs its totally different, as they have no awareness of this change, or why its actually happening.
What can we do to help our dog?
The only way we can really help a dog snap out of an anxious or hyper aroused state is to give it something else to focus on, and that alternative focus must have a motivational value higher than what is triggering the anxious state in the dog. For example, say your dog was overly anxious to approach another dog, we would have to find something else we could get the dog to focus on that has a stronger motivating factor to be able to snap the dog out of this anxious state. The dog cannot do this alone, as it isn't even aware of its emotional state, and therefore that there is even a trigger in the first place. One way of helping our dog is with negative reinforcement. That means giving the dog a stronger motivation to escape a discomfort than its motivation to interact with the other dog. Obviously, we need to work on low level anxiety or arousal, so that the dogs threshold of discomfort is lower. The more hyped up and anxious the dog is, the higher its threshold of discomfort will be, and therefore the stronger motivator we need to help the dog refocus its attention away from the trigger, and that means greater discomfort.
When a dog is 100% fixated on a stimulus that triggers a reaction, such as aggression, then we need to find something whereby we can lower this focus, and offer something else that for the dog creates a stronger attention focus. Say the dog is only 25% fixated on the stimulus, and is 75% focused on avoiding or escaping a discomfort, then obviously the dogs reaction level to the stimulus is going to be much lower, as we are taking up most of the dogs focus with trying to escape or avoid a discomfort. We are therefore conditioning a shift in the dogs brain in regards to the stimulus, as long as we are consistent and offer the same avoidance/escape distraction every time.
In some cases we can even use positive reinforcement, such as a toy and game or food, as long as the motivation to interact with the toy or take the food is much stronger than the motivation to interact with the stimulus that is triggering the anxious or hyper aroused state. The main problem with this method I find, is that all we are really doing is redirecting the hyper aroused dogs attention totally away from the stimulus that is triggering this state and not directly dealing with it. This is why I personally prefer using negative reinforcement in most cases, as we can keep some of the dogs attention on the stimulus, but also create a stronger awareness of needing to escape or avoid a discomfort. As long as this motivation to avoid or escape a discomfort is stronger than the stimulus triggering the emotional state, and the dog understands that the discomfort will not be presented or will be removed if the dog is in a calmer state, then as I said, we are then creating a shift in the dogs brain in regards to the stimulus that is triggering the emotional state.
We can never expect a dog to be consciously aware of its current emotional state, and therefore work through it on its own, such as a human is capable of doing.
Do not set your dog up for failure
Obviously, if we never allowed our dog to be anxious or in a hyper aroused state when going for a walk, and we never allowed our dog to drag us towards other dogs and people, then we wouldn't have the above issues to deal with. It's important to always be aware of and understand your dogs current emotional state, not only when going for a walk, or when allowing it to socialise with other dogs and people, but for all areas of your dogs life, especially when we are interacting with it.
We should always be very aware of what emotional state we are triggering and reinforcing in our dog, and understanding that the emotional state we are triggering or reinforcing, your dog cannot just snap out of it on its own, as it has no cognitive ability to understand its emotional states or to what level this emotional state is getting too.
Prozac and the dog that shouldn't be.
Punishment, the evil word in dog training