Does this feel good?

black and white dog with basketballMy preference is not to use physical manipulation when working with dogs, but I will gladly employ emotional manipulation. One of the things a fearful, anxious or shy dog’s brain is good at is reacting in a fearful way. The practice of bullying or punishing a dog for inappropriate fearful behavior only helps their already adept-at-feeling-scared brains, keep feeling scared or aggressive. By tapping into their brain’s reward system we not only help them learn new behaviors, we can begin to manipulate them emotionally. We start helping their brains get better at feeling good.

Our brain’s reward system has so much control over our behavior that we can end up doing too much of a good thing. Eating, drinking, smoking, exercising, sex, even working can all be rewarding to people and taken to unhealthy extremes. When working with dogs the most obvious reward we can start with is food and no need to worry about them raiding the refrigerator at night for that last piece of cheesecake. When we control the rewards that our dogs value, we become part of the ‘chain of feel good’ that we use to train and modify behavior.

By systematically creating conditioned reinforcers (reinforcers increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated) we have a grab bag full of ways to change how our dogs feel. A conditioned reinforcer is anything that has been associated with a primary reinforcer (food and play are both primary reinforcers). I like to start with a clicker with dogs that are not sensitive to the sound. Click/food, click/food, click/food. Down the line the clicker morphs into a great training tool, but to begin with it helps to change how a dog feels. Saying a dog’s name and tossing them a treat turns their name into a conditioned reinforcer. Praising a dog and tossing a ball, makes praise a conditioned reinforcer. Studies have shown that the ‘anticipation’ of a reward causes more dopamine (our brain’s ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) to be released than the reward itself. That’s pretty cool beans if you ask me.

If you are adverse to using food when working with fearful dogs, or any dog for that matter, I recommend that you read The End of Overeating, by David Kessler. The first half of the book looks at studies done with animals regarding food, motivation and performance. Written to address weight loss, the book makes a case for just how powerful food is for controlling our behavior. If we control our dog’s food, we control the behavior.

There is a new book out called The Compass of Pleasure which looks at the neurobiology of our brain’s reward system. I’m looking forward to reading it, which is pretty rewarding. You help fearful dogs by giving them things to look forward to, rather than worry about.

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2 comments so far

  1. sara on

    I learn useful tools for my fearful dog from every post you write. I love your last sentence in this post. I also loved your view that the clicker can change the way my dog feels! I need to start carrying my clicker at ALL times to use that as a conditioned reinforcer.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Sara. It is possible to create negative associations with any kind of reinforcer, but it’s easy enough to see it if it’s happening. I was using a clicker with a dog who developed a sensitivity to the sound and cringed when she heard it, which also made her more sensitive to my hand reaching out to give her a treat. Yikes. And she was not a particularly fearful dog. It just means we have to pay attention to the dog and if we know our dogs well enough we can adjust our responses as needed.


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