Grab Em By the Dopamine Not the Neck

cartoon of brainI realize it’s a simplistic way of looking at a brain’s reward system, and that’s because of my limitations, not yours dear readers. But if we can sneak our way into our dog’s brain’s reward system we can grab a hold as tenacious as any baseball fan’s in the stands who manages to snatch a foul ball.

It’s glaringly obvious that brains have people and animals doing all sorts of things to feel good, negative consequences be damned. You know that 3pm cup of coffee may keep you up at night, but it tastes so darn good. The credit card is maxed out but whatever you’ve found to buy is so fabulous and you’ve wanted it for so long, and the price is too good to pass up on, so you buy it. The doctor and every magazine you read has encouraged you to eat less fat, sugar and salt, and you know it’s time you did, but somehow you just don’t seem to ever be able to. Rewards are powerful things.

When brains (and I say brains because this is true of so many brains currently on the planet, not just ours or dogs’) anticipate something good is about to happen there’s a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It causes that ‘oh goodie!’ feeling. Then when we get the anticipated reward we get another hit of dopamine, this time it’s not quite as big as the ‘oh goodie!’ hit, but it’s still worth working for. Over and over again. There are ways we can manipulate this process, taking advantage of when and how often rewards are received, and how good they are, to get consistent and reliable behaviors from dogs. That’s what trainers do to get the behaviors they want dogs to perform, over and over again.

There is no shortage of misinformation and controversy about how dogs learn and the most humane and effective ways to train them. One of the most frustrating comments made during the numerous debates on the subject is that the trainers who eschew force, pain and coercion based training are merely jealous of the financial success and notoriety achieved by some of the trainers who don’t. And though I can’t speak for every trainer, my own feelings and experience with other trainers indicate that there’s not much that could be further from the truth.

Professional dog trainers are like professionals in any field. When we see talent and skill we seek to emulate it, and learn from it. We support the trainers who can painlessly teach a range of simple to complex behaviors- whether it’s to an aggressive dog, a tiger, cockatoo or goldfish- by attending their seminars and lectures and purchasing their books and DVDs. We eagerly share their websites and videos with each other and with our clients. We applaud trainers who make the very scientific and ordered mechanics of training look like magic, not combat.

In The Second Sex in which Simone de Beauvoir addresses human history from a feminist perspective she wrote, “All oppression creates a state of war.” Professional dog trainers, the ones who I cheer for, understand that when we use force, pain or the threat of it, to control an animal’s behavior we are not only setting up a very specific dynamic of struggle between us, we are significantly and possibly forever, effecting what a dog can learn. It doesn’t matter if the animal we are interacting with is happily wagging their tail or trying to bite us.

Somewhere along the line many trainers and pet owners have gotten it into their heads that because a dog’s behavior is aggressive it must be taught differently than a dog whose behavior is tolerant and compliant, as though the organism itself no longer works according to what we know about how animals learn. What great trainers understand is that we work with behavior, however that happens to look at the time. We either like it or we don’t, and we know the key to maintaining or eliminating it lies in our ability to keep our hands on the switch controlling the rewards.

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11 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    As always a timely and eloquent post. Finna is one of those dogs with fear aggressive responses to things she finds frightening. Just now for example she growled softly at my daughter who was bringing me a cup of tea. Finna had been asleep at my feet and didn’t expect anyone to come in here. My very well trained daughter stopped moving and gave Finna a few seconds of space to assess what was happening. Finna put her head back down and my tea was deposited on the bookcase next to me. I can’t imagine punishing Finna for perfectly natural reaction–“Whoa, what’s happening?” When I’m uncertain what’s happening I want a bit of time to figure it out why shouldn’t she be given the same thing. I get so frustrated with all the well meaning advice to put Finna in her place, use a shock collar to teach her not to bark at the neighbors, electrify the fence so she’s never tempted to go under or over it. When Finna has gone over or under the fence it is in pursuit of a ball, sadly once she gets outside anything that presents itself is terrifying and must be frightened away. When nothing is happening when she’s outside the fence she brings her ball back to the gate and asks to come in. Our solution is to secure the bottom of the fence and to increase the height in the blind corner where I was most inclined to get it over the fence. It’s more work than strapping a collar on her and shocking her anytime she looks like she might be going outside the fence but it doesn’t hurt her and it doesn’t increase her fear so it’s more than worth the time and effort. And, just to brag about a milestone, twice today she started toward the part of the fence where most of the things she reacts to happen but came away when I asked! The neighbors on that corner are loud, have two labs that they yell at constantly, and like to have lawn mower races along the fence. I really can’t blame Finna for finding them stressful, I’m not that keen on them myself. What we’ve been working on though is her not seeking out that corner where she’s likely to find something to be reactive about and today, at least, it worked. She didn’t go looking for the stimulation of something to be reactive about, staying with me made her happier. Yah!!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Having the patience to let the training and behavior modification ‘take’ is a big piece of the puzzle. With dogs like this we have to be careful because reactivity is rewarding too, and if we diminish, in any way the rewards we can provide as an alternative, it becomes more and more difficult to convince a dog to go with our choice of response.

      I suspect those milestones will keep coming! Nice work.

  2. Laura Holder on

    Brilliant post! As always, a lovely, concise and information-rich entry!!

    And I like what you said in the comment reply above. There is that fine line you have to walk and take care not to reward reactivity as much as possible (easier said than done!).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Laura! Reactivity is one of those self-reinforcing behaviors that whether we reward for it or not, it can persist. I figure it’s the same for playing hockey 😉

  3. Kim and Asher on

    Debbie, I always love reading what you write, and the dopamine connection with force free training is a bit of a mantra of mine, right up there with “My dogs don’t have to sit, they get to sit”.

    Great blog!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Kim! How about being a guest blogger? Even something you’ve already written that you’d like to share again would be great.

  4. Lizzie on

    Now here’s a thought.

    What about the training methods used for dogs in military or police service? We all know for a fact that they don’t use treat rewards and a softly softly approach. These dogs are taught to be reactive and take down individuals on command; to defend their handlers and absolutely be aggressive.

    For whatever the reason, it would seem that dogs can and are trained by using more than reward methods. Or is the reward in the reaction?

    • fearfuldogs on

      I would correct you in that not ALL military or police dogs are trained without using food rewards or play. In fact many organizations are heading in that direction with their dogs. The same is true of gun dogs. Did you see the great demo at this year’s Crufts dog show?

      As we travel further into the 21st century dog trainers are joining the ranks of the enlightened who have finally let go of their death grip on conventional wisdom and are welcoming the insights science based training methods provide.

      The difference is in what the dogs are being conditioned to do. A dog can be taught to chase, grab and hold someone without having to be ‘out of their head’ to do it. Sure it’s an activity that feels good and is rewarding in itself but the days of having to beat a dog off a ‘victim’ are long gone. These behaviors are put on cue, the same as any other.

      But to respond to your question. Dogs are incredibly flexible, tolerant and adaptable, and add intelligence to the mix, that they learn despite how we train them, not HOW we train, much of the time. This leads to people believing that their methods are appropriate because they ‘worked’.

      What is often overlooked is that there are a host of negative consequences that can go along with training that incorporates force, pain or the threat of it. When these occur, few look at their training methods as the cause. Instead the dog is labeled ‘red zone’ or some other descriptor which implies the fault lies with the dog.

      There are many things that are rewarding to dogs and that being the case will cause them to repeat behaviors we don’t like, such as stealing food off counters, chasing cars or cats, shredding pillows, etc. We can use this to our advantage when training. A dog who likes to chase and grab things is rewarded with the chance to chase a ball. Military and police dogs are often trained using a rousing game of tug as a reward. Take down a ‘suspect’, hold them until their handler arrives and when called off get to play tug. It’s a win/win for the dog and they become very enthusiastic workers.

      • Lizzie on

        I knew that I could rely on you Debbie for a full and frank response to that one!

        However these service dogs are trained they do appear to have a real bond with their handlers.

        I watched a TV programme the other night about the training of military dogs in Canada. The dogs they used were mainly German and Belgian Shepherds and had been bred especially to be trained as ‘war dogs.
        Their methods were pretty old school using prong collars, lots of shouting and yanking of the lead. Seemed to me that the dogs had known little else, and yet they were affectionate with their handlers when off duty even though they didn’t live in a domestic situation, as say police dogs do, (at least they do over here).

        Despite the use of domination and control over these dogs I didn’t see any that were cowering or afraid of their handlers, they were utterly compliant and willing to work.

        The dogs trusted the handlers and the handlers relied on their dogs to defend them. It seemed to be a mutually benficial relationship.

        As you say, dogs are wonderfully flexible and most can cope with an awful lot 🙂

      • rangerskat on

        Thank you for this correction. I’m acquainted with a lot of the trainers of military and police dogs in my area and none of them use the old punishment based methods they are all reward based trainers. The local sheriff’s department is currently experimenting with a program where the working dogs teach the puppies. A pair of police dogs were bred and the puppies go to work with Mom and Dad to learn the job of a police dog before they go into formal training with a handler. I’ll be interested to see how many of the six puppies successfully complete the training. I’m betting it’s pretty powerful training watching your parents work.

        One of the trainers that has been highly recommended to me for Finna is a rewards based trainer who regularly competes her dogs at the highest levels of Schutzhund. I’m not sure training in that canine sport is really what I want for Finna although I admit that from the little bit I’ve researched it she does have the right sort of drive and I can see the benefits of having it on cue. I’ll be interviewing the three trainers that I had several different recommendations for once school is out and we’ll figure out which one is going to be the best fit for us.

  5. EngineerChic on

    I wonder how much our own fear plays into the training approach we choose? Our first dog was a shep-mix who made inappropriate teeth-to-skin contact when we were playing once. I won’t call it a bite because there wasn’t much force, but the upper & lower canines were on my cheekbone & my jaw (at the same time, think about that for a second …)

    We hired a trainer the next day – this was a BIG dog and that event scared me. The trainer believed in choke collars & NILF training, along with rewards for good behavior. I went along with it, that dog was trained and still holds a special place in my heart (it’s been 4 yrs since he passed away, and I still miss him).

    Only a few months after training that first dog I started fostering dogs and got REALLY good at house training adults by using the umbilical cord technique. It never occurred to me to use a punitive training method on house training. House training was important, but not important (or scary) enough that I’d use any kind of punishment for it.

    Even now, when I think of our current dog’s training we did most of it with reward-based learning … but my greatest fear was that he’d run away and be lost forever. With his fear of strangers I don’t think he’d ever be caught. So his recall was trained with rewards … plus a collar. Definitely not the best approach (neither was the choke collar training with the first dog).

    But when I think about my OWN response to fear (fear that my dog would attack someone & have to be euthanized, or fear that my dog would run away and die all alone) it seems that I go into the “red zone” & am willing to do things I would not normally do. Like physically punish a dog.

    Maybe the way to train pet owners to train with smarter methods is to address their fear?


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