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Behind every behavior lies an emotion.
Talking about emotions in dogs is something relatively new in the scientific world of dog behavior. The neuroscientist Gregory Berns was one of the first to establish that dogs really does empathize with us and that what we feel can be transferred down to our dog and make them feel the same. Do they love us? You bet!
But what are they feeling themselves and how do they portray those feelings, and more importantly how do we as humans learn how to read and understand those emotions?
A dogs’ emotions
A dog has emotions just like we do, and as we know from ourselves, emotions are never neutral and can vary in intensity. The core emotions help your dog to survive and are beneficial, it is when an emotion turns into a permanent state that problems can arise.
Just like us, a dog can go from content to super happy or depressed and sad to downright frustrated. Emotions impact how their brain is structured and how it functions, through the signals of different neurotransmitters, which in return shapes their personality. Different emotions provoke different behaviors and different cocktails of neurotransmitters are wired in different situations. This creates quick changes in the different emotional states, making it hard to specifically pinpoint the exact emotion to an exact behavior.
How can you help your dog with his/her emotions?
The first is to learn to read their body language as that is our dogs most pronounced communication with us when portraying their emotional state (more about that here).
The second is to learn how to teach our dogs. It has been shown that by using positive reinforcement we help our dog stay more balanced. Both low and high arousal in a dog affects their ability to learn, so it is our job as their human to find that golden in between, in order to optimize their learning. By using treats in our training, we also make the experience more pleasant. This increases the dogs’ willingness to stay focused on the training.
By providing a strong positive base for our dogs it can help them handle the always unavoidable unpleasant scenarios that exist in our environment and that we cannot control. Your dog will get scared or frustrated at some point in his/her lives, but by having that strong positive base with consistent positive reinforcement it is easier for them to bounce back and not enter a permanent state of fear or stress and thereby also avoiding a range of behavioral problems.
Emotions also have the amazing ability to spread backwards.
What does that mean?
Well, say that your dog loves to play with their toys, but doesn’t like to ride in the car. What if you play with the toys in the car and then take a ride? Then the car ride becomes a positive experience because you first did something that your dog already likes.
Sadly, it can also go the other way – say that fireworks go off right when you step out the door, and the next time you try to enter your dog is scared. His/her fear of fireworks has been transferred to a fear of the doorway.
However, if you have given him/her that positive base he/she is more likely to ‘yes get scared’ but then bounce back to normal faster. Stress and fear are not always negative. A little stress, the so-called eu-stress can be positive for your dog and so can a fear (helps your dog to survive by staying away from truly dangerous things). It is when staying in those states for a longer period that problems may arise.
It is important to remember that all dogs have friends, enemies and acquaintances – we cannot expect our dog to love everything! But by giving them different positive experiences with as many different things as possible, we create a strong foundation and early avoidance of problem behaviors that stems from negative emotions.
Remember, that first impression lasts, so make it a good positive one!
The take home message of today’s’ blog is therefore:
By understanding the underlying emotional state of our dog we can prevent a potential behavioral problem and not only create a better understanding of our dog but also improve the bond between us.