Emotional Learning Our Honest Dogs

Emotional Learning Our Honest Dogs

Dogs are honest, from head to tip of tail. This is my favorite quality about them. They don’t beat around the bush when it comes to telling the world exactly how they feel, and they don’t try to sugar coat their messages, no matter who they are “talking” to. They are experts at expressing their emotions through their bodies, from subtle “whale eyes” and lip licks to overt growling and snapping. Different muscles may engage for different emotions (just like us! *), and we must take its whole body into account when trying to ascertain how our pup is feeling.

“But his tail was wagging”
Wagging Tail ≠ Friendly
We focus too much on the tail for information on a dog’s state of mind and intent. While it can be very expressive, a wagging tail is not always an indication of friendliness. In fact, it can mean the exact opposite, and this can lead to serious trouble when we misinterpret it. Is the tail carriage low or high? Is the wag stiff and quick, or slow and wavy? Are the ears back or forward? Is the direction of the wag to the right or left?
Video on how to read a tail wag:
Have you ever seen images of human expressions and tried to guess their emotions? It can be confusing. Embarrassment looks like shame, pain can look like disgust, and so on. There are nuances to weigh, and context plays a major role, too.
The limbic system is the brain networking system responsible for controlling emotional drives and memory formation.
“Emotion modulates virtually every aspect of cognition. It has substantial influence on the cognitive processes…, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving… as well as motivating action and behavior.” **
The limbic system of dogs is structured and functions similarly*** to that of humans. We can gain important insight into how best to raise and train our dogs based on this awareness. Yes, science is our friend!

Training a Joyous Dog
We affect our dog’s emotions when we are with them, whether it’s simply hanging out together or during an intensive training session requiring attention and problem-solving. A happy dog is more likely to learn more efficiently, have better attention, retention of skills; all the basic elements to help make both ends of the leash successful. When we start with joy and blend in learning, there’s no limit to what we can do together. This is why positive reinforcement training is so effective and efficient... and fun!

“Honor the Dog”
Jenn Michaelis, a friend and highly respected dog trainer [sassytacademy.com], is always reminding her students to “honor the dog.” I love this because it emphasizes the importance of seeing the world from our dog’s perspective (the learner) and adjusting our behavior in order to help us achieve our goals.

Start with Joy
Human students often get caught up in the mechanics of training – how to hold the leash, when to give the treat, etc. – and the emotional state of the dog gets pushed to the back burner. If we first work on “priming joy,” so to speak, through fun and games, for example, we will start right out with a more engaged dog, and the exercise becomes that much easier.

Joy Counteracts Fear
Joy and fear do not overlap as emotions. Joy is very conducive to learning. Let’s add as much joy to our interactions with our dogs as we possibly can. AND pay attention to that body language.

Happy Training!
“We express fear when we feel physically or psychologically threatened. The facial expression of fear is often confused with surprise. But when we’re surprised, our eyes open wider than when we’re afraid, and our mouth isn’t pulled sideways, instead, our jaw drops and the mouth hangs open. Plus, our eyebrows are relatively flat when we’re afraid; they arch more when we’re surprised.” See photo below [greater good, Berkeley.edu]

**“The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory”Frontiers in Psychology, 2017
***Psychology Today
Lily Chin’s “Doggie Language” book – highly recommended!

                                    Fearful expression in human



                         Fearful expression in dog

Diana Logan, CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed  
Pet Connection Dog Training, North Yarmouth, Maine
 www.dianalogan.com | 207-252-9352

Back to blog