Their brains make them do it

I recently heard about a study that was done using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a type of specialized MRI scan, which measures the change in blood flow related to neural activity in the brain of humans or other animals. This technology makes it is possible to see which neurons are active in a brain when certain thoughts or emotions occur. The study looked at neurons in the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for emotional reactions, and visual cortex, which ‘sees’ objects. What they found was that when presented with photographs of images intended to induce positive or negative emotional responses in people, regardless of the content, it was the neurons in the amygdala which reacted first. What this indicates is that even before we ‘know’ what we are looking at, we have already had an emotional response and its accompanying physical reaction.

Since dogs and other animals share these same parts of the brain with us, it’s likely that their brains respond in a similar way to stimuli. And  it makes sense. A gazelle grazing on the plains that stops to think about whether or not an animal moving rapidly toward them is a lion, is probably not going to live to graze another day. In much the same way, without any practice at all most of us will leap back if we step off a curb before we noticed that a car was speeding toward us. We can thank our amygdalas for this.

Think about how this effects our fearful dogs and the way they are often handled. By the time a dog appears to ‘see’ whatever scares it, its brain has already had the opportunity to respond negatively to it. In many cases the negative emotional response is accompanied by a negative behavioral response like aggression. We know that dogs get better at any behavior they have the opportunity to repeat, whether we approve of it or not. So each time we put our fearful dogs into situations in which they are exposed to whatever scares them, enough to cause a response, they’re getting better at that response.

Trainers who use aversive techniques to stop or control inappropriate responses in these situations are in effect, closing the barn door after the horses are out. It’s not the behavior they need to stop, it’s the emotional response. Hurting, scaring or threatening a dog to stop it from feeling scared makes no sense. When the focus is on the aggressive display (or the animal’s reluctance to perform a particular behavior), they’ve missed the proverbial boat. This is why desensitization and counter conditioning do help fearful dogs, they change the emotional response an animal has to whatever scares it. The brain is changed so that the first reaction it has is a positive, rather than negative one.

Any of us who have tried or are trying to do this know how slow and tedious the process can be.  But the next time you see a trainer responding to a dog’s fear based behavior with the use of force or punishment I hope your own emotional response is a negative one.

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7 comments so far

  1. Eileen on

    I recently read “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog” which included fascinating explanations of how the brain developed and works. It is written about human brains, but dog brains develop and act similarly. It was really helpful to me in getting a much fuller understanding of how and why dogs can have such fearful responses, and how counter-conditioning really does work. Things like how when a person (or dog) is in the grip of a full fledged fear response, they literally cannot respond to outside direction because those parts of their brains are shut down so the more primitive parts can function and save their life (as would be needed in a true emergency). It’s a quick read, and I’d definitely recommend it to someone working with a fearful dog (or a mentally ill or traumatized human).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing this Eileen! It is my hope that as people learn more about how a fearful dog’s brain responds to stress and anxiety they will be better able to handle their dogs effectively and humanely.

  2. Rod@GoPetFriendly on

    Wonderful research article. And for those of us with fearful dogs, it puts another tool in our toolkit to help them cope.

  3. Heather on

    Hello Fearfuldogs,
    Could you please site the article or study that you are making reference to? I am interested in reading it in its entirety. Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I heard it on the Scientific American’s 60 Seconds Psych podcast. Catching the brain at work 2/10/10

  4. Lizzie on

    I bought the book that Eileen mentioned and it is fascinating and very informative.

    When reading certain explanations of behaviours I can instantly relate that to the way Gracie is, and now I know why!

    Thanks 🙂


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