Getting past the lizard — the science of positive training

When you search the internet for information about dog training, you can find everything and its opposite. This makes it really hard for well-meaning dog owners to find out how to raise their dog well, even with professional help (since there are no licensing requirements, anyone can declare him or herself an expert dog trainer). Unfortunately, too many vets have scant training in animal behavior; their knowledge is, after all, in anatomy, not behavior. The fact that even our vets aren’t up to speed on the latest science about animal behavior makes it even harder for dog owners to understand how to be good leaders/parents/owners or whatever word you prefer.

Today, a friend shared a user-friendly article on interpersonal neurobiology and what it teaches us about how to raise children, but many of the conclusions are applicable for animals, although to a different extent. Actually, many of the conclusions are also applicable to our spouses, co-workers etc. I strongly recommend everyone to read it, think about it, re-read and keep re-reading it.

Some of the really top-level messages of the article:

  • We are Borg, but in a good way. Although we like to think of ourselves as individuals, we are actually part of a collective. Our “mirror neurons” allow us to experience what others are feeling and doing in much the same way we would if we were doing those things ourselves.
  • Our brains are interconnected. The way we act and react to one another can actually change the way the other’s brain is wired, especially in the critical phases of development in early childhood (and puppyhood, in the case of dogs).
  • Our reptilian brain is reactive; our cortex can learn. This is where the science is really critical to help people’s attitudes about “discipline” and “teaching” to evolve. The reptilian brain is designed to ensure survival. This is where the Fight or Flight instinct is housed. But stress can create permanent cues that trigger these basic survival responses, even when the stimulus is benign. In people, a well-known example is post-traumatic stress disorder. In dogs, aggressiveness and other reactive behaviors fall into this category. The problem with domination and discipline-based approaches is that they depend on one reptilian brain dominating the other and they thus perpetuate the cycle (which is why abused children often abuse their own, among other things). The key to resolving these problem behaviors is to reassure the reptilian brain and to allow it to hand control back to the cortex. This can only be done by a trainer/teacher/parent using a cortex-level response and being a safe haven for the reptilian brain.

This is why the training methods we use with Spencer entail a lot of treat-giving around things and people he considers scary, regardless of what his behavior is. A purely behavioralist response would be to only distribute treats if the desired behavior is demonstrated first. The interpersonal neurobiological approach says that the first thing to do is make the trigger less scary so that the reptilian brain doesn’t feel a need to react and cedes control of the dog’s response to the cortex. Only then is the dog ready to learn more appropriate behaviors.

The next step of this process is for the animal to understand that you will always protect it. I noticed almost right away that the day we were attacked by a Chihuahua was a turning point for Spencer. I was convinced then and am even more convinced having seen this scientific information that it was because I actually shielded him with my body. This was a clear signal that I would protect him no matter what. Increasingly, he turns to look at me when he is uncertain about something, and if he’s really unsure, he scoots back to my side.

This feeling of safety allows his brain to continue functioning at the cortex level, even when confronted with something or someone that makes him uneasy. This allows him to learn the things I try to teach him at these times and it also allows him to make decisions according to the routines he has acquired through learning rather than having panic trigger his reptilian instincts.

A final aspect of the article that has parallels in positive dog training has to do with mindfulness. One of the techniques we use to help keep Spencer operating at cortex level is called “Look at That”. Simply put, you call the dog’s attention to scary things before he sees them on his own; by doing so, you pair the external trigger with the emotions you communicate. Depending on your tone of voice, the dog either receives the message “stranger/unworried tone” or “stranger/happy tone” (using a worried tone would be counterproductive). For this to work, though, it is really helpful if the dog already sees you as a safe haven.

In closing, I’d like to point out something unrelated to dog training that struck me as I was reading the article: how much science once again underscores some of the central tenets of many major religions. If responding to aggressiveness with a cortex-driven response isn’t an example of turning the other cheek and loving thy enemy, I don’t know what is. Mindfulness of course has a direct parallel in Buddhism, but also in other religions.


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