How can the dog’s brain associate something bad in a situation, but not learn behaviour when stressed?

What do I mean by this?

People always ask me about rewarding during situations where the dog has reacted, many trainers will say it reinforces that behaviour. 

This isn’t the case. And I will explain why.

Diamond et al 2007 studied memories and Dr Tom Mitchell from Absolute Dogs did a 10-year study on canine memories and learning. 

He said ‘ Long term memory – “long term potentiation” – is stored much better and enhanced by stress, but this is dependent on when the stress happens’

If you have a dog that tends to react often, their stress has developed and raised over time and they can’t calm down due to the ever-increasing, ongoing stress hormones circulating in their system, they will have less ability to learn when they have high levels of cortisol (stress hormones) in their system. 

However, in another scenario, a dog comes running out of their house when you are walking past and scares your dog. The dog has stress hormones circulating as always, but this event creates ‘learning’ in the brain and whenever you pass the house where this happens you see your dog begin to react. 

Why? If during stress learning is inhibited, how has the brain associated the event and created behaviour?

It’s because of a flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory is a detailed, animated snapshot of the exact moment a consequential, and emotionally event occurred. 

‘A flashbulb memory is an accurate and exceptionally vivid long-lasting memory of the circumstances surrounding learning about a dramatic event. Flashbulb Memories are memories that are affected by our emotional state.’ ( 

This explains why stress can reduce memory when the time between the stress and the learning are far apart and can increase the ability to learn and store memories when the stress and the learning happen simultaneously.

Wouldn’t it be great to have some of that flashbulb memory instant learning that gets stored away, but as a positive experience for things that you want your dog to learn?

Arousal or stress and learning need to be applied very close together. Looking at the previous scenario of the dog reacting when near the house, where the previous bad experience occurred, if you add a positive experience, maybe scatter some food, turn away from the house so they don’t have to be faced with the memory of what happened, and then play with your dog and feed, eventually the bad memory will be replaced with a good memory. 

If your dog has reacted and you scatter food and they engage in that, they have still had a positive experience. Their brain won’t associate the barking with the dropping of food, because we know that during stress the brain’s ability to learn is diminished, the adding of a positive experience will create a flashbulb memory and a positive one!

It is highly likely that some dogs, despite having the most amazing food presented will ignore this and continue to react.

Why is this? 

They have reached their coping threshold and the dress levels are too high for them to be able to think at all. Adrenalin is taking all their attention and effort toward the trigger.

In this instance all you can do is create as much space as possible, avoid the house and work where your dog is under the threshold and gradually move toward the trigger once they are able. All with positive reinforcement methods. Space can be a great reinforcer.

Look at this scenario from the dog’s point of view. 

The dog’s brain is signalling that the house is near, the stress levels begin to build as it gets closer, they are on the lead they cannot escape, and they genuinely believe that the dog will run out of the house again and this continues until they explode with lunging and barking.

But instead, you approach the house (before the dog begins to react) and you read your dog’s signals and say ok let’s go, you turn and walk away. How great would this be for your dog? Then you can work with your dog to develop confidence around the area. 

Imagine the scenario again, but you have been advised to use a nose halti, a prong collar, or an e- collar? Or do you give a harsh collar tug? You are simply adding a negative response to an already fraught, fearful, stressful situation which will only increase the stress hormones. You may not see the behaviour. But that is because the product is restricting the dog’s ability to react. The memory is still there, the stress hormones are still there, the emotions are still there, and the body must react to this. Think of a pressure cooker, when the steam comes to a head it has to go somewhere. Your dog will then have to adapt another behavioural coping strategy.

Behaviour is the output of emotions 

So next time your dog is reacting, add some food, you will see a real difference in their behaviour. 

** Please note that negative reactions require a lot more work and effort than simply adding food. This blog is meant to give you an understanding of how the dog’s brain reacts toward negative stimuli. Every dog’s behaviour is unique and may require a full behavioural assessment and modification plan to see improvement in their behaviour. **

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