Management of negative emotional states in sensitive dogs

Publicado el 19 de marzo de 2015

A few days ago a new friend asked me about the problems of his seven-month sheltie: in certain situations, he showed fear and seized up. This was a problem for his quality of life and its future potential in Agilty.

Specifically the car and the pet carrier caused drooling, emotional block and even escape responses, when he came home he took more than ten minutes to recover and start playing with my puppy.

Lately many sensitive and intelligent dog breeds, particularly border collies, Shetland sheepdogs, Australian and Belgian shepherds are appearing with issues or mismanagement of negative emotions.

It is normal for sensitive races with nerve responses to be affected by something timely, if they are not taught to properly manage negative emotions it can create insecurity, fearful responses and even more severe problems.

Apparently the sheltie had a bad transfer when a puppy when he was sent by courier (not usually a good idea to send a puppy by courier, but sometimes it is the only option). This generated a bad emotional association with both the car and the pet carrier.

Emotions are associated by classical conditioning and are more consistent than an association made by operant conditioning, furthermore self-feeding processes of the emotional state often appear: the fear (the combination of internal state, physiological reaction and tendency to action) generates more fear by itself, without there being more external stimuli. When this happens, the association can not be extinguished, and he will often start to associate other things with that fear, for example our sheltie could go by car on the road to work, and when he gets out, with the fear caused by the car, may associate it with the road, generating fear to this and these transfers can increase indefinitely.

It is fundamental to the quality of life for a dog to be prepared to properly manage negative emotional states or we will have low tolerance and poor stress management, a tendency towards inconsistent behavior, insecurity and unhappiness of the dog.

In this case I recommended the following:

Games for getting into the pet carrier and the car: Putting some tasty food inside, we leave it to the dog to decide whether to enter, we gradually make it more difficult to access both the car and the pet carrier (side pet carrier, door ajar, door stuck against a wall so that you need to move the pet carrier to get in, crumpled newspapers filling the pet carrier…). It is very important to do this well, commands like «very good» must not appear, nor should successes be clicked. We are not teaching an action by operant conditioning, we do not want external reinforcements and confirmations, what we are doing is putting the dog in a situation perceived to be emotionally negative (heavens, the pet carrier!!), by making something of interest appear, we create a small conflict: I want the food, but I’m afraid to enter. It is important that the dog decide if it is worth it to face the negative or not, if he decides to do it, he will be learning something more important than making the pet carrier something positive: he will learn that even if he has a negative emotion he can work on it and with that voluntary confrontation with fear, he gets results and comes to a positive emotional state. We are teaching him to properly manage fear, not by eliminating a particular point. The reinforcement must be as small as possible and the difficulty must be increasingly difficult, so we replace the external reinforcement (food) with the internal reinforcement (troubleshooting). Finally we will get him to go into the pet carrier and the car for fun and as an end in itself; with that we will have «turned the tables» on the emotional association.

But if we just do this, although we improve the dog’s particular problem, we have not finished preparing him to properly manage negative emotions.

Since overcoming this problem we will continue to work: in the normal training sessions, we will occasionally use low-intensity negative stimuli (a paste of hair on one leg, a post-it on one ear …) so that he sees that through working he accesses a positive emotional state even if slight discomforts appear.

In my opinion, training must get the dog to access a more positive emotional state more than avoiding negative stimuli at all costs, I think there is much confusion between negative stimuli and negative emotional state and that leads to very harmful overprotective training in puppies, who must build up their management tools of negative situations, we must know how to gently introduce negative elements to teach the dog that they can be overcome, without this we would not be preparing them to have an optimal quality of life.


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