Rovers Return Training Academy

How Stressful Events Affect Your Dogs Future Behaviour


A study in 2007 by Diamond et al 2007 studied memories. Dr Tom Mitchell from Absolute Dogs carried out a 10-year study on canine memories and learning. 

Dr Tom Mitchell said

Long-term memory is stored  and enhanced by stress, but this is dependent on when the stress happens’

If your dog reacts to triggers often, stress has developed and raised over time and they can’t calm down due to stress hormones circulating in their system, which cannot reduce due to facing triggers on a regular basis.

Your dog will have less ability to learn when they have high levels of cortisol (stress hormones) in its system.  Due to how cortisol affects the brain, learning is inhibited, and you may find your dog won’t listen to you or even be able to sit when asked. 

But if during a walk a dog suddenly comes running out of their house when you are walking past and scares your dog. This event creates ‘learning’ in the brain and whenever you pass the house where this happens you see your dog begin to react. 

The problem is what they recall isn’t always exactly how the event happened. This is because the memory is emotional, the feeling of fear will be remembered and some of the finer memories will be blurred. 

During stress learning is inhibited, so how has the brain learned to react to these (and future) events? 

It’s because of a flashbulb memory.

A flashbulb memory is a detailed, animated snapshot of the exact moment a consequential, and emotional 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 increase the ability to learn and store memories when stress and learning happen simultaneously.

It is possible to have some of that flashbulb memory instant learning that gets stored away, but instead of a negative response, it happens as a positive experience for things that you want your dog to learn.

Arousal, 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, by adding positive experiences, maybe scattering some food,  and turning 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. 

This will take as long as your dog needs to disassociate from the negative experience. It will take time, and it will take patience, but IT WILL WORK!

If your dog has reacted and you scatter food and they engage, they have had a positive experience.

People ask me if feeding when reacting will reward the behaviour. 

The answer is NO!

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 addition of a positive experience will create a flashbulb memory and a positive one! And we are changing the trigger pattern. But it is better to begin the work, where possible before your dog reacts. Its harder to bring arousal down, but it’s easier to prevent arousal from rising with scatter feeding and increasing space.

It is common, despite having the most amazing food presented to ignore this and continue to react.

Why is this? 

They have reached their coping threshold and the stress 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, and 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 adopt another behavioural coping strategy.

Behaviour is the output of emotions 

So next time your dog is reacting, add some food, and 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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