Behavioural Inhibition

February 28, 2017

One of the most enjoyable things about training with positive reinforcement is that as soon as the dogs sense that a training session is about to start, a kind of buzz happens.  They can be fast asleep or lolling about in the sun, or just sitting gazing out at the garden, but as soon as they hear me getting my gear together (and they hear it – no matter how quiet I am), all of them are standing at the door, tails wagging and eyes bright.  This is because they just love training – training is not a chore it is a game we play together.  It gives them an opportunity to have a conversation with their trainer, to problem solve, to earn reinforcement.

Using positive reinforcement with a bridging stimulus has another advantage.  It gives the dog freedom to experiment with behaviours.  This is a trait that is not present in any dog that shows signs of Behavioural Inhibition.  There is nothing sadder than a dog that is so anxious about doing the wrong thing that it ends up doing as little as possible.  It becomes so inhibited that teaching it anything outside its experience is really difficult and time-consuming.

Some features of a behaviourally inhibited or shut-down dog would be a resistance to trying anything new or foreign to its experience.  A 14 week old puppy that has been positively trained from the get-go will have absolutely no problem rapidly offering behaviours such as climbing on to a raised object, offering position changes voluntarily, readily taking food rewards, making eye contact and so on.  The inhibited dog will, on the other hand, even when lured on to a raised object, will, after many, many sessions be very hesitant to try it and will often start the session simply sitting or standing and doing as little as possible.  This same dog will take many, many sessions of luring the down before offering the position, and even then will lower itself cautiously without making eye contact as though not sure what the consequences will be.

It is possible to make things better for these sad little dogs.

  • Identify the situation that tends to activate behavioural inhibition and avoid that situation. Change the environment.  If the dog is unhappy in the area that you train, move somewhere else where the dog is more comfortable.
  • Identify anything that the dog will participate in willingly. And gradually use this participation to ease the dog into working more confidently towards goals that you have set.
  • Observe the dog closely and avoid anything that causes the dog to shut down. Once the dog becomes more confident these things can gradually be reintroduced.

Exercise LOTS of patience.  Even a hint of frustration or irritation will lead to a shut-down dog.  End the session immediately you start becoming frustrated.


Empathy and Emotions

August 20, 2012

According to Frans de Waal empathy is the capacity to (a) be affected by and share the emotional state of another, (b) assess the reasons for the other’s state, and (c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective.   This definition extends beyond what exists in many animals, but the term “empathy” … applies even if only criterion (a) is met.”

Every night owner John Unger takes his sleeping pal Schoep into the waters of Lake Superior in Wisconsin and lulls him to sleep.

There are a many articles and studies done on whether or not dogs are empathetic towards humans.  But in spite of the fact that empathy towards the dogs we live with is an essential ingredient in our relationship and interaction with these animals very little has been written about this subject.  How often with our own dogs do we put feelings of frustration and aggravation aside and try to see things from the dog’s perspective?  How often when our dogs behave in ways that do not quite fit in with what we expect from our fellow humans do we act inappropriately towards our dogs without thinking about what is causing this “odd” behaviour?  We more often than not do not “put ourselves in the dog’s shoes”.

Happy Dog

To be able to empathize with our dogs we need to recognise that dogs feel emotions such as happiness, loneliness, sadness, frustration, anger and fear just as we do, even though they might express these emotional ups and downs differently.  We owe it to our dogs to learn how to identify their emotional states as best we can.  By doing this we will be able to help them with any behavioural problems that may arise, such as aggression, fearfulness, anxiety.  In fact, by taking into account the emotions dogs feel, rather than simply looking at how they behave, animal behaviourists are now learning to get to grips with solving these problems much more effectively.

There have been studies recently that show that dogs can and do empathize with their humans.  The researchers concluded that dogs might have much the same emotional responses as a young human child. In the same manner that young humans show empathy and understanding of the emotions of others, so do dogs. Furthermore, we appear to have bred our dogs so that they not only show empathy, but also show sympathy, which is a desire to comfort others who might be in emotional distress.

If dogs are capable of this, then we need to closely examine how we behave when our dogs are in distress, anxious or in need of understanding and comfort.

Footnote:

Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal is best known for his study of captive chimpanzees resulting in his book, Chimpanzee Politics, in 1982. This book offered the first description of primate behavior explicitly in terms of planned social strategies.  In his writings, de Waal has never shied away from attributing emotions and intentions to his primates, and as such his work inspired the field of primate cognition that, three decades later, flourishes around themes of cooperation, altruism, and fairness.

Recently, de Waal’s work has emphasized non-human animal empathy and even the origins of morality. His most widely cited paper written with his former student Stephanie Preston, concerns the evolutionary origin and neuroscience of empathy.


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