Dopamine: Making Behavior Substitutions More Successful
Updated: May 28, 2022
By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
It can seem sometimes like solutions for certain problem pet behaviors do not exist, no matter what owners (or even trainers!) may try. Have you ever had a dog who continues barking over the wall at the neighbors, or toward the front of your property no matter what you do? Does your dog have reactivity on leash that will not go away with traditional solutions? I have some explanations, although a bit more technical than my usual articles…and some solutions to try that will likely work much better. Here is the science behind it, and a brief discussion of solutions is discussed further below.
A large part of the problem lies in the current living environments and subsequent behavioral expectations that many house pets face in Western industrialized environments. Those behaviors that they were specifically bred to perform (at some point in the past) simply are not desired or acceptable in modern homes and communities.
Special high-value foods or praise from the owner are usually not rewarding enough to rival what is going on internally with the dog with those intrinsic rewards, at least not on a consistent basis. Nothing is as rewarding as doing what you are bred to do and fulfilling that purpose.
One of the problems with intrinsic behavior patterns (e.g. herding, predatory behaviors, guardian/protective behaviors, foraging) is that there are innate incentives -- or “rewards” – that dogs earn when they perform these behaviors, which actually make the probability of performing these behaviors highly likely again. In fact, dogs perform these behavior patterns without any motivating factors (e.g. hunger, fear) or human training. It is generally believed that these behaviors are controlled to a sizeable extent by genetics (Spady 2008). Of course, there are other environmental factors and learning – both naturally occurring and human directed -- that can influence the practice and strengthening of these behaviors through repetition and reinforcement. Dogs were selected by humans to perform these behaviors without any training on their part, and this occurs through their internal neurological and biological systems. That is because there are emotional operating systems in place in the brains of all mammals that encourages them to explore their environments for food/prey, environmental awareness, and predators before the individual is ever experiencing hunger or fear. This environmental exploration is reinforced with releases of dopamine when a dog locates stimuli around the owner’s property, performs guarding behaviors, and the threat disappears (Panksepp).
Chemical reinforcement occurs when a dog pressures sheep and they move. Dopamine is also released when a terrier chases and then grabs and kills a rodent. Dopamine is released when food falls from the counter and a dog bolts to snatch it from the ground (Wise). Hunger and fear are not requirements for the animal to engage in these behaviors when opportunities arise. I would like to see more studies on these chemical events – such as how/when they are released, and how they affect behavior. For us as dog owners, trainers, and behavior specialists, it is essential to have some understanding of things that are crucial to behavioral outcomes in our animals, even if we do not fully understand it.
Substituting behaviors is not always a simple task. Although there are differences, I like to think of human examples sometimes to explain these things. Humans were not selectively bred for extreme presentation of certain behaviors as we have done with dogs, but still, it can help understand why thoughtfulness is important. If we are having trouble dealing with stress or rage – perhaps the death of a child, the loss of a spouse, problems with work or relationships – we can find a lot of different ways to cope. People can completely lose it – throwing things across a room, shouting in rage, which may provide momentary outlets for the stress. A common and helpful substitution behavior in humans is exercise. After losing my youngest brother and then most recently my young dog, Beowulf, I used kettlebell
lifting (girevoy sport) to cope. Intense exercise releases endorphins, bringing about chemical changes that help to positively regulate mood both in the immediate moment and for hours following the exercise. Unfortunately, there are other behavior substitutes that people sometimes choose when dealing with stress that can result in some desirable chemical changes in the short term but poor long term results, like compulsive eating, compulsive shopping, drug abuse, or alcohol abuse, to name a few. Random behaviors like touching a lucky penny, doing the dishes, or gardening, do not generally elicit these same chemical effects in the body. The behaviors we choose as substitutes do actually matter because the physical effects need to be as good -- if not better -- than that which would be achieved through the behaviors that would likely occur if there were not an appropriate substituting outlet.
There are different ways to handle modal action patterns, and those can involve training incompatible substitute behaviors, reinforcing lesser versions of the reflexive response (rewarding “stalking” vs “chasing”), providing healthy outlets
for these behaviors, and management so that they do not encounter opportunities to perform those behaviors. When training substitute behaviors for those specifically selected and bred for motor patterns, they are more likely to be performed if dogs receive a reward similar or as good as what they would intrinsically receive. This is not much different than what I described above in my examples with humans. If a dog with strong guarding tendencies has the opportunity to guard the wall along the property from strange dogs and people, he is unlikely to consistently give that up for food. He gets access to food at other times. Food isn't the same kind of reward as those "feel good" chemicals, and the sense of fulfillment he may receive from making the perceived threats disappear. Whatever the owner is having him do for the food likely does not meet the need of the behaviors the dog would normally perform in their situations.
Genetics, early socialization, maternal/in-utero conditions, and unique learning experiences shape how dogs perceive the stimuli they encounter in their world. Stimuli trigger particular behavior patterns – often ones that were at some point selected for by humans – and the dopamine releases that follow these behavior patterns teach the dog that these are behaviors to choose again (Bogacz 2020). It is also likely why we see some of these behaviors magnified in stressed dogs who are looking for ways to cope and boost their own mood. Shadow and light chasing, car chasing, and inappropriate scavenging are common behaviors in anxious, stressed domestic dogs. It is important to note that dogs experience involuntary reflexes in response to environmental stimuli, with the nature and extent of those reflexes depending on both their genetics and learning from past experiences. Dogs may notice rapid movements or sudden appearances of a strange person/animal in their vicinity, thus reflexively triggering the dog to perform these motor patterns. Your dog is not trying to annoy you! We can often use management or creative training solutions to change your dog’s reaction to these stimuli if they are causing frustration, and of course, take steps to address any emotional aspects to ensure we are working with a happy, healthy dog.
My late dog, Beowulf had guarding tendencies that were, at times, out of this world. There was nothing more satisfying for him than having the opportunity to guard our property or our personal space when in public. He relished in the opportunity to posture himself, charge toward things and bark at them. When they would disappear from sight, he would prance around with him head held high, wearing a look of such satisfaction. At the same time, getting rid of these “threats” did not end the guarding behavior. He would immediately be on the lookout for the next opportunity to do the behavior again and achieve that same feeling. This was not fear in his case. Just a feeling of purpose and boosted mood from those chemical releases when he got the chance to guard. When we moved to our little ranch from a small neighborhood property, there was more property and boundaries to patrol. He would pace back and forth along the walls listening for noises to confront with barking, and stand guard at the gates with see-through metal mesh waiting for something to appear that he could confront. There were too many opportunities for these behaviors to be triggered, and the behaviors were only increasing in frequency. In all honesty, he soon appeared stressed by the amount of territory that he felt he needed to patrol, which was just too much for one 20 lb dog to do.
I use three trained behaviors (with associated emotional associations and patterned chemical responses) specifically to combat these reflexively triggered behaviors.
· High speed "come" – I train this using dogs' natural inclination to chase and perform the predatory sequence
· "Turn" – I train this on a platform to rapidly whip around 180 degrees from the stimulus of their fixation (either on leash or along property boundaries) to chase a moving object…usually a tennis ball, but you can also use food
· "Go get 'em!" – I train dogs to quickly turn away from the stimulus of their fixation along property boundaries to rapidly charge toward a physical target placed far away on the ground
I developed and began using these specific techniques for Beowulf, which enabled him to live in at our new property in peace, learning new avoidance-type responses that did not require him to stand at a gate or wall barking until the people or dogs disappeared into the distance. He was able to enjoy himself freely – and generally relaxed – roaming our property. His confrontational responses were now reserved for real threats – like when a dog or person hang over the side of our block wall into our yard (we had to let our neighbors know this was NOT acceptable), or when someone unauthorized entered the property. The non-stop barking and other stress behaviors disappeared, so his physical and mental well-being improved, as did ours! He enjoyed performing the substitution behaviors, as they are behavior patterns he enjoyed, and they also seemed to immediately provide a boost to his mood, as was intended.
These training techniques have worked exceptionally well for clients worldwide who could not consistently keep their dogs from engaging with certain stimuli (strangers, snakes, sheep, dogs) through any other training techniques. That is not to say that predatory aggression or guarding behaviors are "cured". They aren't. But this can certainly help. Behavior professionals and pet owners may not be neuroscientists but that does not mean we should completely ignore the internal processes at play as irrelevant. Doing so would only be ignoring a variable that we can influence that is crucial to success.
I realized over time that I did not see others addressing predatory behaviors and guarding behaviors in this way. The focus was more on training physical replacements rather than trying to find ways to satisfy the internal needs. Satisfying these needs increases the likelihood of the dog exhibiting the behavior in the future without verbal cueing from the owner. This is why I use these techniques with my rattlesnake avoidance training as well as with dogs who guard, exhibit predation, or are severely leash reactive. These techniques are a way to train new behaviors that give the best chance of being exhibited again in the future. Trainers who use my rattlesnake avoidance techniques have mentioned that “Turn” is the only behavior they have found to effectively replace dogs’ predation behaviors toward the venomous snakes.
It can also be handy for stressed or anxious dogs who have difficulty staying under thresholds because performing the social and movement-based behaviors has been tied to chemical releases that boost mood, putting the dog into a better emotional state so that learning can occur. They are not just getting a food reward for the behavior but getting social bonding and feel-good chemicals that will help them to continue working in the environment while maintaining appropriate arousal levels. Playing, running, and other fun movement-based exercises can be helpful additions to a desensitization program for stressful environments. The play and movements help to release endorphins and other feel-good chemicals, which a dog may classically condition to that environment. They can also help a dog to de-stress so they can work in an environment that is challenging for them (Panksepp 283). These techniques take it a step further because we are continuing to train very specific behaviors while helping dogs to stay under the threshold so as not to trigger fight/flight responses.
I use these behaviors with dogs who are heavily predisposed to guarding or have learned there is significant value in guarding. For these dogs -- like my Beowulf -- there is nothing in this world they enjoy more than guarding territory or owners. These techniques have been highly success in my snake avoidance program, but also in territorial guarding cases, owner guarding, predatory aggression, and severe reactivity cases. Too often, we look at dogs as blank slates that are similar to a computer that just need the correct programming applied
in order to get the specific results that we desire. This could not be further from the truth. If we only look at what is visibly quantifiable then we are missing out on “invisible” reinforcers that may be driving dogs to perform their behaviors. This is where I would like to see more disciplines come together like animal behavior and neuroscience so that we can learn more about these variables that heavily impact behavior. Although we can categorize them, we cannot see them or quantify them at this point in time other than that which we infer through observable behavior. Then we can come up with more fruitful solutions. We may not be neuroscientists or neuropsychologist, but do not let that stop us from more deeply examining why our pets do what they do when solutions may seem stymied. I hope this article encourages deeper thought, and perhaps a greater collaboration between scientists, behavior professionals, trainers, and pet owners.
Please book a private training or mentorship appointment if you would like to learn more about these techniques to use with your own dogs or your clients’ dogs. I would love to share these cutting-edge techniques so they can more widely benefit others.
Bogacz, Rafal. “Dopamine role in learning and action inference”. eLife. (2020). https://elifesciences.org/articles/53262
Panksepp, J. Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press. (1998).
Spady, Tyrone C, and Elaine A Ostrander. “Canine behavioral genetics: pointing out the phenotypes and herding up the genes.” American journal of human genetics vol. 82,1 (2008): 10-8. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2007.12.001
Wise, Roy A. “Role of brain dopamine in food reward and reinforcement.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences vol. 361,1471 (2006): 1149-58. doi:10.1098/rstb.2006.1854