In the 80’s there was an oil painter on PBS named Helen Van Wyk… yes, believe it or not, there were other TV oil painters besides the iconic Bob Ross. Van Wyk specialized in still life and portraits, but she was also interesting to listen to. What stood out to me was the signature tagline she said at the end of each show. She’d tell you what the next episode would be about and then say, “Or, I will teach you how to make soup.” I always took it to mean that blending colors is analogous to blending flavors, some being stronger than others. Perhaps she saw soup differently. Either way, that phrase stuck with me since I was a child, only to resurface 40 years later while wandering down this rabbit hole to seek a better understanding of how chemicals in a dog’s brain react to various types of training, which I will elaborate on in a moment…so hold that thought!
Dog Emotions and Doggy Motions
Dogs share many of the same emotions we do, we just communicate them differently. For example, a human may express happiness through words, smiles, and laughter, whereas a dog will use body language in a series of touches, licks, jumps, wiggles, and of course, wagging that highly specialized conveyor of emotion, the tail.
But where do emotions come from? What makes us feel emotion? How can we help dogs and ourselves feel natural and calm in a chaotic world?
My hope is to shed light, albeit a relatively minuscule and humble light, on what may be the most massive elephant in the room when it comes to dog training and human/dog relationships. The Brain.
How do you see a dog?
Over thousands of years, individuals, civilizations, and cultures have viewed dogs through different lenses. Some say dogs are “man’s best friend.” Some consider them a triumph in domestication and utility. On the other side, there are people who see them as dirty parasites that can bite you while others see them as just simple animals, beneath humans. Depending on the lens a dog is seen through, a concept of dog relationship emerges and a respective type of dog training evolves. Dog training is a history of extremes, ranging from purely positive reward-based methods on one side to tragic and methodical abuse on the other.
I have never rushed to label my training style. One might say it is relationship based, but really I just have a single goal and it’s a simple one: I want a calm dog. The tricky thing about calmness is that to achieve it you have to be aware of the things that calmness is not, and then stop doing those non-calm things. Another way is to continue doing those non-calm things until you exhaust yourself, collapse into a heap, and finally realize calm.
With that said, if calmness is the absence of action and reaction then we need to know what causes us to act and react in the first place. For that, we look to the following:
Instincts are hardwired actions and reactions to the survival of a species. They include the instinct to seek food, avoid danger (fight or flight), reproduce, care for the young, and form social groups.
Emotions are complex internal feelings that come from thoughts, experiences, and associations. It is debated as to how many emotions there really are but for the sake of this writing, we will consider the basic 6 emotions of Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Surprise. All six are believed to be felt by both humans and dogs.
Behaviors are the observable expression of emotions and instincts. Going back to our happy dog example, the dog feels happy emotions when seeing someone, and the behavior is wagging the tail.
While instincts, emotions, and behaviors are distinct from one another they all share a fascinating commonality. Chemicals! Specifically, neurotransmitters and hormones. In order for Instincts to be acted upon, Emotions to be felt, and Behaviors to be observed, they all rely on specific chemical messengers released at just the right moment. The chemicals can influence emotion and behavior. Fun fact! Dogs and humans have the same neurochemicals.
So what does this have to do with Dog Training?
Well… quite a bit. Every style of dog training past and present, from positive to negative, humane to inhumane, are all working with emotions and neurochemicals flowing through a dog’s nervous system whether the trainer is aware of it or not.
But before we get lost in the weeds, I want to focus on just two polarities found in the dog training world, the sensation of Pleasure and Pain. For ages, humans have been using these two polarities to train dogs. Some are all pleasure (reward), some use pain (punishment), and some use a combination of the two. However, none of these methods realizes the kind of dog that I want. A calm dog.
Let’s consider the extreme results of pleasure and pain. If we go to extreme pleasure we see addiction, which is a loss of self-control and anything but calm. If we go to extreme pain we see aversion, which is fear and aggression, once again…not a calm state. So where can calm be found? I would say it is found in the absence of both. The moment we move away or towards anything we begin to move away from calm.
In the case of dog training, we must first observe the dog and the environment they are in. While the dog may be reacting to various things around them, we cannot help them achieve calm by introducing even more stimuli from our own hands.
One of my favorite zen quotes is “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.” – Lao Tzu.
Or, as Alan Watts put it, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
So what does this have to do with soup?
Imagine a bowl of soup. With this bowl of soup, you can add various flavors (spices) to increase its taste. But here is the tricky thing about soup… you can’t simply remove a flavor once it’s been added. You can try to balance by adding other ingredients, but it can never go back to the way it was before. Once it is in there…it’s in there. If you continuously seesaw between ingredients you risk making the soup inedible. You can also try adding a neutral ingredient like water to thin out the flavor…but your soup bowl is only so big. The moral of the story… know your ingredients, don’t add something you can’t take out, and don’t rush… good soup is best prepared over time.
With the soup analogy visualized, let’s consider a dog’s mind. At any point in time, our dog’s brain is automatically responding to its environment by releasing various different ingredients (flavors) into its mental soup bowl. We have no control over that, we also don’t have a complete picture of exactly what emotions are being felt and when. With those limitations understood… What kind of ingredients would you add? Pleasure, Pain, or Neutral?
When training dogs, one should avoid adding even a drop of pain or fear into the soup by their own hand. If a dog is already reacting aggressively because it is afraid or lacks confidence the last thing one should do is punish it for reacting, which only adds more fear. They already have those ingredients in their soup! That’s like trying to reduce saltiness by adding more salt! On the other side, I would avoid shoveling treats down their throat in hopes that pure pleasure will somehow distract from the pain. It may seem to create a positive effect in the short term, but all it is really creating is an addiction. So what is the great neutralizer?
Time. (I know… nobody likes that answer…)
“Time heals what reason cannot” – Seneca the Younger
Behavioral problems do not happen overnight and do not go away overnight. A dog stuck in a neurochemical whirlpool can be a sad, confusing, and frustrating thing to watch. It is hard for pet parents to see the way out when they are desperate for calm. It tends to lead folks towards avoiding many environments altogether, which is a lonely place to be.
The good news is that dogs want to return to calm, they want the mud to settle and they want to live an engaging life in the world with you. But we must slow down, observe our dogs, and be mindful of the environments we are placing them in. We can’t change the world to prevent our dogs from reacting to it, but we can change how we introduce them to the world.
Like soup… like painting… it’s an art.
All written content is Human Generated/ All images are A.I. Generated