Can you train your dog's emotions? The truth behind "Good food, Good mood"
Training your dog's emotions
We all know that dogs can be trained to perform cute and practical behaviors on cue, but did you know that you can also "train" your dog's emotions?
There's truth behind one of our favorite phrases - "good food, good mood" - that has been well-established by the research of animal behaviorists and the experience of everyday trainers. You have probably heard that dogs "learn through association," and this principle of learning theory, known formally as classical conditioning, is perhaps the most powerful tool in a dog lover's box for helping their dog overcome fear or other unpleasant emotions and their associated behaviors. This is true especially in cases that are misinterpreted as unfriendly/aggressive behavior.
Just as Pavlov's dogs began to experience the same joyful brain chemistry and physiological expressions of happiness when they heard their dinner bell ringing even long before the food actually arrived, we can condition dogs to feel great about stimuli that formerly had negative or no meaning to them. There is no natural reason a dog should salivate and dance with happiness at the ring of a bell, but since the bell was reliably paired with food, the noise of the bell itself began to cause these reactions. (This is why classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning.) Although it may sound foreign when viewed in relation to a classic science experiment, we have actually all been classically conditioned without even knowing it. For example, although we would be indifferent to burning wax by nature - or perhaps even a little uncomfortable since fire can hurt - it's the consistent pairing of candles with relaxation that provokes the sense of serenity many people experience when they enter a room where one is lit. The same goes for certain combinations of rhythms and notes in music: perhaps the JAWS theme gets your heart racing while Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 lulls you to sleep, but if you had not been conditioned that way, those tunes would just be noise with no deeper impact on your emotions and behavior.
It's pretty clear in the below photographs that Piper the Deutsch Drahthaar loves the boat and feels great about its rocking motions, noisy motor, and gusting wind. Jinbei the miniature poodle, however, needed more than a couple of treats on a few boat trips before he was able to come out of his hiding spot...
The principles of classical conditioning
When we use good food according to the principles of classical conditioning, we can condition our dogs to respond joyfully to - or, at a minimum, feel more comfortable with - anything or anyone they encounter. One principle that we cannot forget is to pair something the dog REALLY loves with the thing we want the dog to learn to like. Think of it as a transfer of value: the more valuable positive stimulus you use, the more positive effect you'll have. Of course, Gretchen's currency of choice is naturally meaty and flavorful Love the Dog Treats - perhaps you can see it in her pleading face. We find that most dogs respond very well to Love The Dog treats for this training, and they are easy to break up into small pieces perfect for classical conditioning work.
So put aside your kibble and milk bones, grab a bag of Love The Dog treats, and help your dog feel better about everything in his life starting today. And the more you follow the below additional principles, the more success you'll have, so always remember:
(1) Dogs cannot learn when they are in a panicked or traumatized state. Actually, the limbic system we share with dogs literally prevents us humans from doing so, as well. If your dog is so scared of something that he/she is already experiencing the very feelings and rehearsing the very behavior you're trying to heal, decrease the intensity of the scary thing and begin to pair it with your treats at a tolerable level. It's safest to start from a place where your dog is noticing, but not reacting to, the scary stimulus. This is usually done by increasing distance to start and then gradually increasing proximity as the dog demonstrates he or she is now happy to encounter the formerly scary thing. We can also lower intensity on other parameters depending on the scary stimulus. These include loudness, roughness, and duration among others.
(Technical Tip: every time you overestimate your dog's new-found appreciation for the "bad" stimulus and push them to a point where they feel and act precisely the way you're trying to train them not too, you have set yourself back. Avoid this at all cost by proceeding with extreme patience!) You can see below how far rescue puppy Jax needed to be away from other dogs before he could begin changing the way he felt about their proximity. You can also see his graduation photos from doggy day care with his first friends!
(2) ALWAYS pair "bad" stimuli with your highest value reward. Every time we fail to provide treats in the presence of the stimuli our dog identifies as "bad" things, we weaken the positive association we're trying to create. This lowers the efficacy of our training and, ultimately, the quality of our end result. So if your dog is fearful of other dogs but encounters them daily on walks, make sure to keep a pocket-sized plastic bag of treats on hand to grab as you head out the door so that you never forget! Similarly, save your highest value treats for classical conditioning.
(3) Deliver many small treats in rapid succession for as long as the dog is aware of the "bad" stimulus. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't change your opinion about spiders if I only gave you a paltry M&M every time you encountered one, and we cannot blame our dogs for being the same way. We are trying to affect what is in large part a subconscious, chemical change in the brain, so as soon as the "bad" thing appears, begin to reward in rapid succession with treats your dog LOVES, and only stop the instant your dog no longer detects its presence. Soon your pup will say to his former foe, "Oh no, where did you go?! Come back!" You can already tell from the posture in the photo here that it will take more than a few treats to get this little Aussie to want anyone to come around his toys. Based on this body language, I know that I should have started treating long ago, and at a lower level of intensity of my presence.
(4) Your dog gets the treats - REGARDLESS of his behavior - so long as the "bad" stimulus is present. Remember, we are training emotions, NOT behavior. So forget your dog's actions entirely except as useful indicators that you're moving too fast too soon! You'll know you have used all these principles correctly and consistently when those "bad" reactions diminish and perhaps ultimately disappear because your dog's response has been re-conditioned. For example, if your dog learns to love skateboards, he will no longer respond negatively when they speed past. Until then, keep trying and checking your training protocol to confirm that you're adhering to these principles. So long as your dog is detecting the "bad thing," you need to be providing the treats that create the positive association. The treats are not contingent on "good" behavior. It may feel counterintuitive, but not only should you continue to feed, you will up the rate of delivery and amount of your food if your dog begins to react negatively while you immediately act to lower the intensity of the feared stimulus! (If you absolutely cannot get around the sense that you're "rewarding bad behavior," you may find it helpful to think of it this way: if your dog is eating, the absolute last thing he did was stop whatever bad behavior he was doing to eat -- so reward away!)
For serious cases, or if you are not making sufficient progress on your own, always remember to consult with a qualified, certified professional dog trainer with a science-based understanding of behavior and learning theory. They have experience designing great training protocols that maximize the above principles, and this can dramatically improve the efficacy and speed of your training. Great resources include the searchable trainer listings on the CCPDT, IAABC, KPA, Academy for Dog Trainers, and CATCH websites! For more information, see these additional respected resources: