"Unified Dog Theory 20: The Joy of Biting Toys in Play."
Updated: Apr 30
Dogs Experience the World Primarily Through Feelings of Tension and Release.
Originally published in slightly different form on July 8, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
Freud and the Pleasure Principle This is the final post in my Unified Dog Theory series. In it I’ve previously discussed the need to have a more complete palette of training techniques available to dog trainers and owners, and shown that there aren’t just two basic schools of training but three: the pack leader model, behavioral science, and drive training, which for many years was used only for training working dogs, not pet dogs.
I’ve also made the point (repeatedly) that some aspects of Freudian psychology may be more relevant to dog training than the more clinical outgrowth of Freud’s pleasure principle, i.e., positive reinforcement, particularly the understanding that pleasure includes the release of pent-up emotions, not just the kind of gratification that comes from external sources. Unfortunately, the scientific literature on animal behavior seems to be hampered by two ideas that automatically prevent a true understanding of how dogs experience the world.
1) Animals are supposedly motivated to act in their own self-interest and/or moderate their behaviors in order to ensure their survival needs.
2) Animal behavior is too often characterized as being “reward-motivated,” and certain animal behaviors are often described as “reward-seeking.” We’re even told that there are “reward circuits” in the mammalian brain.
Regarding the first idea, if an animal has no sense of itself as a being separate and apart from others, how could it rightly be said to act in its own self interest? And if an animal has no understanding of its own mortality, or the difference between life and death, how could any of its behaviors be rightly described as being related to its personal survival?
As for the second—that animals are motivated by rewards—the behavioral science literature is very clear that positive reinforcements can only be determined after the fact by reviewing the scientific data and examining it for statistical trends in terms of a particular behavior’s “response strength, meaning that whether a bit of food or words of praise act as a reward is dependent solely on how one reads the data. So if positive reinforcements are theoretical/statistical constructs, not tangible objects, events or markers, then how can an animal be rightly said to engage in a “reward-seeking” behavior? (True, positive reinforcements are technically not the same thing as “rewards,” but that’s not something that’s easily explainable to the average dog owner, and even if it were, it’s not something that’s understood at all by the average dog!)
Freud and the Pleasure Principle Obviously, a behavior that ensures an animal’s ability to stay alive long enough to reproduce has substantial benefits, both to the animal and to the continuation of its species. But nowhere in the usual explanations of survival behaviors are we told how an individual animal feels about any of this. We’re given an explanation which encompasses the broad sweep of evolution without much, if any, data about how an animal experiences events that prompt his or her so-called survival behaviors, or what actually motivates those behaviors. (Remember, it can’t be the “desire to survive.”)
So the pleasure principle—the idea that organisms gravitate toward behaviors that provide pleasure and avoid those that cause pain—actually gives us a solid explanation for both “survival” and “reward-seeking” behaviors: animals are simply seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. (Interestingly, what the brain actually rewards is the act of paying attention to both positive and negative experiences.)
So why don’t we define these behaviors in this way?
When animal studies began it was presumed that animals didn’t experience pleasure or pain, or that if they did, it was unscientific to say so, or to impute behavioral motivation to something as “unknowable” as an animal’s inner experiences. Unfortunately, by sidestepping the issue of animal emotions, science has unintentionally framed nearly every single aspect of animal behavior in terms of something even more unknowable, a purely human-like thought processes.
Morgan’s canon states, “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” (Morgan 1903, p. 59) Following this rule, which of the following lies higher in the scale of psychological evolution and development, a) consciously thinking about one’s mortality or b) having the desire to avoid pain and suffering? And which of these lies higher, c) the ability to know and understand what a reward is, or d) the ability to experience physical pleasure?
What Is the Dog’s Motivation? In my recent discussions on dominance in wolf packs, Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning made the following statement. “Mammals assert dominance even when no food or mate is at stake. Of course they don’t do this consciously. Each individual simply seeks rewards and avoids pain.”
If so, then why are we talking about rank and status, and dominance and submission—which are conceptual in nature—and not about pleasure and pain—which are visceral? If you’re describing a behavioral phenomenon in animals by saying that they don’t do it consciously then how are they doing it? What is the actual motivation?
In terms of “dominance” and “submission” the answer is pretty clear. So called dominant members of a social group tend to have lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of cortisol—which indicates feelings of anxiety and stress. This would mean that any so-called dominant behavior is purely a product of anxiety and stress.
When a “dominant” animal acts aggressively, its serotonin (and probably its dopamine) levels go up. However, it would be just as inexact to say that an animal acts in an agonistic manner because it wants to increase its serotonin levels as it is to say that the animal has the intent to dominate others, or to rise in rank or status.
Once again we have a behavior that is not controlled by a conceptual thought process but by a visceral, “gut feeling” (80% of the body’s serotonin is found in the stomach and intestines). If this is true, then in most cases, the “dominant” animal doesn’t feel doesn’t feel good unless he’s acting “dominant.” And the good feeling he’s seeking is not an external reward, or a feeling of power, it’s a reduction of his own internal tension, anxiety and stress.
Which brings us back to Sigmund Freud.
Internal Tension and Stress Remember, Freud defined pleasure primarily as a lowering of internal tension caused by strong drives and instincts. (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” The Freud Reader, p. 595.) He also said that “the repressed instinct never ceases to strive for complete satisfaction.” This is one reason why I think it’s important for us to explore the principles of drive training, which induces and reinforces obedience through the reduction of a dog’s internal tension and stress rather than through applying unnatural social pressures (the pack leader model), or by relying too heavily on external rewards (behavioral science).
If you want to use the Pavlovian model, that’s fine too. Pavlov got his results by approaching the problem from a purely gut level too. He was a physiologist (not a psychologist or behaviorist), and his main interest, at least initially, was in understanding gastric secretions.
Freud may have been off-base in some of his psychological theories (something he freely admitted), but his most important ideas have been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, due primarily to our increasing ability to understand more about how the brain operates (something B. F. Skinner had no interest in). It turns out that what’s most rewarding for both dogs and humans may not be external reinforcements, but the safe release of pent-up emotions.
So how does it feel to have strong unresolved emotions? Some describe it as a feeling of knots in one’s stomach, or tightness in the throat, chest pressure, or muscle tension. But no matter how you describe it, it feels really good when all that tension suddenly goes away. That’s how dogs feel when they get to bite down hard on a toy in play. And if you ask me, that feeling, that sudden release of tension, is probably the single most important aspect of dog training.