"Using Positive Emotions to Cure Aggression."

Curing Canine Aggression Through the Laws of Affect.

Originally published in slightly different form on May 10, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.

“Behavioral scientists have long relied on the ‘law of effect’ to describe how ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ control learning: Behaviors followed by rewards increase, whereas those followed by punishments decrease. But such rewards and punishments are more than objects in the outside world; they can change affective brain dynamics. Thus, we can envision ‘laws of affect’ whereby … changes in emotional states promote emotional learning.” —Jaak Panksepp (2011.)

Positive Reinforcement vs Positive Emotions In my last post I talked about ways to deal with aggression in rescue dogs. One form of canine aggression is the dog who barks furiously at other dogs he meets on his walks. This behavior is often difficult to fix, which means that it has to have been reinforced in some deep and long-lasting way.

But how? What causes the dog to repeat the behavior and not give it up? What is he getting out of it? What’s the payoff?

One hypothesis is that the dog barks in order to increase the distance between himself and the other dog, thus some call this a “distance-increasing behavior.” Personally, I don’t think that’s why the dog barks, but let’s say it is, and analyze how that might work.

If the reinforcement for barking is the eventual reduction of physical distance, proximity, etc., between the two dogs, how is that information processed in the dog’s mind? Is this a function of hypothetical thinking, involving the intangible concepts of space, time, and distance? “If I bark at that dog long enough he’ll be scared and move away from me.” Or does it come through a change in the dog’s feeling states; the dog barks because the other dog stimulates strong visceral feelings of social attraction and social resistance, and he stops barking when those feelings (particularly the feelings of social resistance) subside?

If we look at the behavior based on The Law of Effect, we’re automatically dealing with intangibles and hypotheticals (space, time, and distance are intangible; the hypotheticals are what the other dog might or might not be thinking or feeling). But if we look at the behavior as being motivated and reinforced by the very real sensation of changes in physical pressure felt in the dog’s body, we’re dealing with things that can not only be felt by the dog, they can be measured by science. (Space and distance can’t be measured except comparatively through physical objects, and time is only measured in relative intervals.)

In this model, there’s no operant conditioning going on (since the dog isn’t operating on the environment, but on himself). The dog simply experiences an uncomfortable feeling of physical pressure in his body and does whatever he can to feel better.

But is this an accurate explanation?

Adaptive Pressures, Behavioral Pressures? Evolutionary biologists tell us that in the wild animals are subject to “adaptive pressures.” If an individual animal within a species doesn’t adapt it isn’t likely to survive. But how do animals adapt to changing environmental pressures? Certainly one of the ways would be through changes in their behavior.

So what if we applied this process to animal behavior in general, and looked at it as being motivated by internal and external stimuli that provoke pressures, pressures that are actually felt by individual animals as changes in their physiological and/or affective states?

Every living organism is an energy system, from the human brain to the simplest single-celled organism. When new energy is added to any living system it has to either be absorbed or gotten rid of. When new energy is added to a cell—in the form of nutrients that keep the cell alive—the cell expands, creating pressure, “motivating” it to divide.

The brain doesn’t expand the way a single cell does, but when new energy enters the mind’s awareness (in the form of internal or external stimuli) it too is subject to psychological pressures. The stronger the stimuli, the more we feel pressured to act to relieve those feelings.

Looked at this way, the presence of another dog creates palpable feelings of pressure the first dog can feel in his chest, the pounding of his heart, etc., brought on no doubt by fear and the production of adrenaline. The closer the other dog gets, the more pressure the first dog feels, and the more he barks. The farther away the other dog is, the less pressure he feels, and the less he barks. (There are other factors, like eye contact, whether the other dog is also acting in an aggressive manner, etc.)

So the barking and its conditioning (classical, not operant) are actually by-products of physiological sensations felt within the dog’s body.

The Relentless Search for Pleasure (or Relief from Pressure) Sigmund Freud suggested that almost all behavior is based on a relentless search for pleasure, with pleasure defined as the release brought about by being able to relieve internal feelings of pressure, tension, or stress. He also suggested that this need to relieve feelings of pressure is so strong it often results in a compulsion to repeat behaviors that had previously brought about those pleasurable and satisfying feelings.

So the more physiological pressure an animal is feeling the more pleasure he’s likely to experience when that pressure is released. This is the reinforcement, the payoff for the barking dog, not the increase in distance between the two dogs.

Freud’s ideas about pleasure formed part of the theoretical foundation for the concept of positive reinforcement, the difference being that positive reinforcements can only be determined to have taken place after the fact by observing increases in behavioral tendencies. Meanwhile, thanks to Dr. Jaak Panksepp and others, affective states (or emotional states) can now be observed, quantified, and measured in real time.

The pleasure principle also explains the problem of addiction, where the addict keeps repeating the same behavior over and over even though he’s repeatedly “punished” for doing it, and when the behavior is no longer being reinforced. That’s because the abuser isn’t seeking “rewards” but the feeling of release. This could also explain obsessive/compulsive behaviors in dogs, and why this type of aggression can be hard to fix, particularly when the “compulsion to repeat” is part of the process.

Solving the Problem The behavioral science solution is usually to give the obsessive barker an alternative behavior like sitting for a treat, hand-targeting, the “watch-me” game, etc. The dominance trainer’s solution usually comes through physical punishment and intimidation (as in the Cesar Millan video discussed in my last post).

How do those of us who use Natural Dog Training (and/or neo-Freudian) techniques solve the problem of the obsessive barker?

Instead of giving the dog an alternative behavior we give the dog an alternative outlet for the pressure he’s feeling, a safety valve for his internal pressure cooker. We generally do this in two basic ways, neither of which are directly related to the specific behavior of barking. We hand feed the dog all his meals outdoors, using “The Pushing Exercise,” and we teach the dog to play tug-of-war, away from other dogs, in a safe, secure area.

In many cases, by simply playing tug regularly, to the point that the dog is investing all his energy into biting the toy as hard as he can, we’re able then to walk him past other dogs without incident (though in some cases it helps to have the tug toy ready, just in case).

I could be wrong, but I think this may be what Dr. Panksepp was talking about when suggesting that we look at behavior through the laws of affect rather than the laws of effect. Since he’s also been instrumental in creating a new awareness of the value of rough-and-tumble play—in both animals and humans—he’d probably approve of playing tug as well.


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Join the Rescue Dog Owners Support Group!

Featured Posts
Posts are coming soon
Stay tuned...
Recent Posts