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Treated as such, it can be examined, measured, and it can be changed.

A behavior is caused by some change in the environment. There are two kinds of behaviors - respondent and operant. Here is the down and dirty difference. Respondents are involuntary and are difficult to observe because they predominantly happen inside the dog. Chemical releases and reflexes fall into this category. They do have some external, observable manifestations like increased respirations, dilated pupils, increased blood flow observable in some dogs with eyes and ears “pinking up.”

Fun fact: These internal, hard-to-see behaviors account for some of the "it happened out of nowhere" scenarios. It is important to remember that lack of overt, observable behavior does not equal your dog being "fine."

Operant behaviors are voluntary and the dog can exhibit these behaviors - or not - depending on lots of factors that we won’t dive too deeply into here. You can think about this in terms of behaviors that can be strengthened with reinforcement or weakened with punishment. Note: Because they are involuntary, respondent behaviors do not respond to consequences - this is why comforting your dog during a scary experience does not reinforce fear or anxiety.

Ok, I used two big labels - fear and anxiety. These are emotions. Emotions are respondent behaviors. So, if they are physiological and happening inside the dog, how do we account for them? First, observation. We all learn about body language for a reason. I can not see adrenaline or cortisol being released in a stressed dog’s system but I can see the dog beginning to pant with short quick bursts of air. I can see the dog’s pupils dilate, I can see the dog begin to pace, tremble, or give an exaggerated yawn. These are external tells of internal conditions.

So what? Well, there is a thing called a motivating operation. It is the internal condition of the dog that impacts the effectiveness of a reinforcer. Emotion is just that. It changes the landscape of a training procedure by changing what reinforcer the dog is spending energy to contact. Reinforcement drives behavior. Your dog will tell you clearly what reinforcer is most valuable to them in the moment based on what emotions they are experiencing in that moment - even if the observable behavior looks the same.

Let’s look at a common example: Jumping on a visitor to the home.

A woman walks through the front door to greet her friend’s dogs. The woman always bring cookies. When the dogs see the woman, the run toward her, barking, tails wagging so fully they could power a turbine, tongues flapping, whining. They jump on her. She gives them pets and cookies and the behavior happens each time she enters the home. The function of that jumping is social contact and to access food.

Now, the same dogs are home when a service person shows up in a uniform and rings the doorbell. The dogs, previously relaxing on the floor, leap up. The door opens, they see the man. Running toward the door, their heads a bit lower, barking, tails a bit higher wagging tightly. They jump on the man. The function of that jumping is? Well, technically we would need to see what happens next. If the man goes away and this response continues over time, then the function was to move the man out the space.

Though the behavior may look very similar, the function is very different. Why? Emotion. There was a different physiological response to each person entering. Sidebar, there are several reasons why the dogs experienced different emotions at the sight of the two individuals and we can leave that for another blog.

The events that directly and reliably cause a behavior are called antecedents. Some antecedents are responsible for both respondent and operant behaviors. They are tied together like a Gordian knot. After all, the reason reinforcers - and punishers - effect behavior is because our dogs feel something about them. Dogs work and spend energy to contact reinforcement because dopamine feels good. It increases motivation, and can be addicting. Our dogs work to avoid punishment because it generates a chemical releases to prep the animal for flight or fight - adrenaline and cortisol are the big ones. This taxes the dog’s system leaving them stressed, vulnerable, and quite exhausted.

Emotion is - in and of itself - a behavior. It is tied to other behaviors because it impacts the effectiveness of a given reinforcer and changes the function of an operant behavior. When working on behavior modification, i.e. changing behavior by first addressing the emotional response, it is necessary to:

  1. Create environments that prevent intense negative emotional responses

  2. Use appropriate criteria setting as you are moving through your plan

  3. Respect the dog’s current thresholds

  4. Estimate emotional response through continuous observation

Oh, I do love a good acronym! Thanks for reading.


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