Unwanted behaviours in dogs can include house soiling, excessive scent marking, roaming, separation anxiety, chronic stress, impulsivity, reactivity,  aggression or even learned helpless and lethargy.  These issues are often coupled with training difficulties which can leave the poor owner with … well chronic stress too!

These difficult behaviours can have many origins.  Sometimes they can be medical or psychological or behavioural so it can be important to understand what causing the issue so that we can best help change things.  Sometimes a small change to underlying factors can make all the difference.

How hormones make a simple difference

Hormones and neurotransmitters, which are important for behaviour, are made from substances in the body but some must be gained from the dog’s diet.  Imbalances in these neurotransmitters can cause potential difficulties in teaching a new behaviour.  So, the dog’s diet can make a difference.  It’s one of those underlying factors.  Additives can make a difference as can protein content, and these days there is a lot of talk about raw feeding too.  But diet is not the only factor….

The dogs underlying biology can make a difference too. A dog with an excess of dopamine can be impulsive and reactive, however, a decline in dopamine can reduce the reinforcing effect of a tasty treat.  Serotonin is responsible for regulating mood and a decline in serotonin has been linked to impulsive behaviour and increased aggression which may make extend time taken to acquire a new behaviour.  A trainer may experience difficulty in teaching a new behaviour if the dog is suffering from low levels of dopamine and/or serotonin.

Now, although these imbalances could be medical, they may also occur if the dog is lacking in exercise, if it has been given an inappropriate diet, if it has been given insufficient freedom to routinely express normal behaviour, has insufficient sleep or is kept isolated from long periods of time.  So it is really important that your dog’s basic needs are met well before we start training new behaviours.

Chronic stress can cause problems with hormone levels too.  Adrenaline and cortisol are released at times of stress.  They help the body ready itself for fight or flight, it withdraws blood from the surface of skin and many internal organism resulting in an increase in blood flow to the muscles.  The response is designed to be a temporary change. A dog that is stressed or afraid during training is likely to be experiencing high levels of both hormones which will impair memory retrieval and recent evidence further indicates that stress may hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information.  A dog in such a state is also likely to be more reactive.  Use of punishment during training, even at a low level, likely to increase adrenaline and ongoing use, especially if the dog does not understand how to change the use of punishers is likely to increase cortisol.  It can help to ensure your dog can avoid his or her stress triggers for a few days before any training takes place, but if you are worried, talk to a qualified behaviourist if you are concerned about chronic stress.

What about genetic differences?

Why is it that one puppy may be more emotionally reactive than one of his siblings even if they have been brought up together with the same experiences.   There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system – one which fires the dog up and one which calms the dog down.  It is these, the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, which work together but as opposing forces to keep the dog in balance.  The parasympathetic branch works to calm the dog and bring it back into balance whereas the sympathetic branch fires the dog up ready for action by increasing the heart rate, inhibiting digestion and increasing breathing.  The two systems strive to achieve, balance, homeostasis.

So, coming back to our question, some dogs can be genetically pre-disposed to be more parasympathetically influenced (calmer) or sympathetically influenced (prone to emotional reactivity and biological stress).    Two puppies brought up together are likely to have genetic differences which would account for differences in reactivity because of such differences in their autonomic nervous system.

Neurological Diseases

Neurological diseases are diseases of the brain, spine or nerves and includes tumours, cervical disease and canine dementia.  Symptoms such as seizures, tremors, difficulty with balance and paralysis are common.   However, neurological diseases may also manifest a wide range of symptoms such as circling, fly-biting hallucination, or just a changed mental state or changes in behaviour such as suddenly stopping responding to simple commands like “sit” or “heel” .  The precise behaviour change presented will depend upon the neurological site impacted by the disease or lesion.

It probably seems obvious that damage to the spine, for instance, may cause a dog to lose control over its bladder and bowels.  What may not be so obvious is that lesions in the cerebellum by cause a head tilt to develop or incoordination of the limbs, lesions in the mid brain may cause balance and body awareness problems, whereas lesions in the cerebral cortex can have more overtly behavioural impacts such as lack of recognition of the owner, difficulty training, compulsive pacing, circling, difficulty with perception, hysterical running, star gazing, aggression and changes in feeding and breeding behaviours.

When behaviour patterns change in this way an underlying neurological reason should first be ruled out.   This is because any behaviour may have a wide range of possible causes both medical and psychological.  Some behaviours may have both a medical and psychological component, for example, head tilting may indicate an ear infection, a brain tumour, or that the owners laugh and pet the dog when the dog exhibits the behaviour.  So if you are worried, then a thorough veterinary check should be performed before any behaviour modification or training is attempted.

How can training interact with the dog’s biology?

Dog training often uses some combination of punishing the bad (shouting, water sprays, choke chains) and rewarding the good (treats, praise and toys).  Fear and punishment impact on the brain through the amygdala, ‘the fear centre’, and ‘freeze or fight’ pathways.  In contrast, positive rewards involve the cortex as well as other brain structures and opiate and dopaminergic systems and not the amygdala.

Once the amygdala has been exposed with a situation that has a fearful outcome, that imprint will remain for ever, albeit, it can be modified.  Therefore, if punishment is to be used it must be closely linked to the inappropriate event and must mildly startle and not terrify the animal. As soon as the undesirable behaviour has stopped the desired behaviour should be cued and rewarded as quickly as possible.

There are two major risks though with punishment in training.  First is the handler, especially if fairly new to training, will use too high a level of the punishment and/or fail to follow through in a timely manner with the cue and reward for the correct behaviour.  Such use of aversives is likely to encode a fear response in the dog which may cause some undesired result i.e. the dog learns to be frightened of the handler or to refrain from chewing the furniture in the presence of the handler.  An encoded fear response is likely to make limited impact on the behaviour under modification.

But I said there are two risks.  The second and more worrying risk is the potential for abuse of power in the relationship.  When a dog-human pair first start working together, it’s a very one-sided relationship with the owner calling all the shots.  Coupled with this, dogs have a capacity to bond with their human in the same way as human infants bond with a parent.  Now we have a huge imbalance of power and the more powerful of the pair is allowed to use fear and punishment to train, and if we aren’t very very careful they can use fear and punishment to vent their own frustration and stress.  This can lead to the dog learning some undesirable lessons and developing further undesirable behaviours.

What’s the alternative?

The most successful behaviour modifications are positive and focus on a substitute behaviour that the animal enjoys.  Behaviours that are reinforced are learned best if every time they occur they are rewarded, reinforcement can be praise, a tasty treat, or a game with the owner.  Once the dog has learned a new behaviour it can be maintained if they are rewarded intermittently.  But, when you start you’ll need to use a lot of treats, praise and play, and a jackpot reward can help learn a new behaviour more quickly.   Contact me if you’d like to arrange a free 121 initial consultation or to find the training class that’s suitable for you.