Disclaimer: I’m not a neurologist or any sort of scientist, and won’t even begin to claim that I understand how the brain works. This post is a vast oversimplification based on the little bit of information I believe I might know. YMMV.
Oftentimes in our Focus & Control or Reactive dog classes, students will complain that they are frustrated. They want their dogs to relax, and they’re annoyed that the dog can’t just settle down. I see this in private training lessons as well. “He KNOWS better,” the client says (glaring at their dog). Never mind the fact that the dog may have been practicing the previous, unwanted, behavior for months or even years and I’ve only been working with them for a few weeks. People don’t understand why their dog can’t just be better already.
I get it. I have a reactive dog, and I feel the same frustration with her. In fact, Layla and I will be going to the University of MN next month to ask Dr. Duxbury about some possible medication changes. Behavior problems are frustrating and difficult. There are no magic cures.
It’s helpful to understand a little bit about the physiology of learning when trying to understand why our dogs can take so long to “rehabilitate” in the case of a behavior problem.
Learning creates physical changes in the brain. These changes are semi-permanent, but new learning can “override” previous learning.
One good analagy is to think of the brain as a rainforest (thanks to Dr. Karen Overall for this idea). When you learn something, you are creating a path through the rainforest, beating back all the brush as you go. The more you practice the new skill or behavior you’ve learned, the more times you travel down that same path. At first, the path is very overgrown and it takes real effort to walk along it. This is the acquisition part of a new behavior. Once you’ve practiced that behavior over and over again (traveled down that path over and over again), it becomes easier. You don’t have to expend as much energy to reach your destination (perform that behavior). This is why learning new skills tires our dogs out so much. Thinking is hard work! It can be very difficult to form a new path and usually requires multiple repetitions.
Why does this matter for our dogs? Once you’ve learned a behavior, that neural pathway becomes very strong. That path is very easy to go down. In Layla’s case, she becomes very anxious in social situations and in the presence of food. These issues have been ongoing since I brought her home at 16 weeks, which means she’s had five years to travel down those pathways. While both issues have improved, neither has been solved.
Her anxiety in social situations manifests as silliness. She wiggles around, grins, and becomes more active (largely, I believe, because wiggling and acting silly means that strangers won’t touch her, since they can’t catch her to get a hand on her). Her pupils dilate and she height-seeks, often performing the infamous “double ovary punch” where she vaults off the stranger’s body. She’s actually quite calm and sweet when she’s comfortable, but few people have ever seen this true side of Layla.
Layla’s food issues have both improved and regressed. Initially, she was a very severe resource guarder. She would leave a food bowl or valuable chewy to bite someone from several feet away, breaking skin. I’m very proud to say that she no longer guards food from people. However, her anxiety in the presence of potential food has increased. If there’s the possibility that she may be given a treat, she obsesses over it. She offers every behavior she can think of, flipping through them as quickly as she can, but is too anxious to pay attention to what behavior she was offering when she was given the treat. This means that she can no longer play shaping games, because she’s too anxious to think clearly. Her pupils also dilate in this situation. If there is food sitting out on the counter, she will pace, whine, and tremble until I put it away or give it to her. I’ve actually increased her daily food ration and allowed her to gain a little weight just to see if this made a difference (it didn’t).
The problem with replacing a well-established behavior with a new behavior is that you’re providing the dog with a choice of two paths. On the one hand, they can go down that familiar path that’s so easy to travel (the old behavior). On the other, they can try to whack their way through the rainforest and form a new pathway. If you were given a choice of going somewhere quickly on either the interstate or on a deer trail through the forest, which would you choose? Layla’s height-seeking and wiggly behavior in social situations is like the interstate – it’s a wide, easy to travel path that’s familiar to her.
At some point in learning, our behaviors even become somewhat automatic and are no longer under conscious control (think about the first time you learned to drive a stick shift VS doing it after you’ve driven one for years – many of those behaviors have become automatic). Layla doesn’t conciously make the decision to act silly and spastic. It’s just what she reverts to in this situation. Training has not been able to overcome this issue with her, because she’s not in a state where she can learn. She may be able to follow cues to sit and stay briefly, but at some point all of that pent up anxiety is going to explode out, and she’s probably going to height-seek and wiggle worse than ever. Trying to control a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety through training alone is like bottling up vinegar and baking soda. If it can’t fizz freely, it’s going to eventually explode.
So, how can we change behavior if the old neural pathways are so firmly established? We need to make it worth the dog’s while to invest in opening a new path, and we need to prevent the dog from going down that old path. In the case of a behavior that’s motivated by anxiety, we also need to treat the underlying cause (usually by altering the brain chemistry with medication such as SSRIs or TCAs). Just like a path through the rainforest, over time the old pathway is going to become a little overgrown and harder to travel down as the dog stops using it. At the same time, the new pathway will become easier and easier to go down until it’s become the path of choice, and the one the dog travels down automatically. That’s not to say the dog might not ever wander down the old path again – it will always be there (this is where spontaneous recovery of previous behaviors can come in to play). We just need to make it the less accessible option.
Can we fix behavior problems? Absolutely! However, how long it takes will depend largely on how good we are at preventing the dog from going down that old pathway, how well established that path was, and how attractive we’re making the new path (hint: use the dog’s top reinforcers and be incredibly generous). Behavior mod isn’t always a quick fix, but change is possible. Support your dog, and be patient as you forge that path together through the jungle. I know that Layla tries her hardest for me, and I can do no less for her, ovary bruises or no.
Now to explore some new paths together…