Affective Dog Behavior Chat on Emotions & Connections


Let’s talk emotions & connections

Knock, knock. The door opens. Little Timmy runs up, flings himself into the visitor’s arms and yells: “You’re here!!!!” The visitor throws Timmy high up in the air, catches him and hugs him close, before Timmy gently slides back down onto the floor. They immediately start wrestling. Punching each other, tickling, running. The house just came alive in childish laughter. For weeks, Timmy has been anxiously awaiting his favorite relative’s visit. His anticipation just about drove him insane, not to mention you (his parent). And in the mix of all this happy commotion is a wildly barking and bouncing dog named Buster, trying to get his fill of attention. Finally, you offer iced tea for the two wrestlers and water for the pup, because by now, you can tell that your visitor is ready for a break. But young Timmy and Buster are still wound up and not even close to settling down just yet. Time for you to intervene, though, and time for Timmy and Buster to rest. After a couple of minutes, Timmy happily gulps down his refreshing drink while Buster dives into the water bowl.

What just happened here? 
Without a doubt, the encounter in this story – from child to adults and to dog – was emotionally super-charged.

Dr. Jaak Panksepp, rat tickler and creator of Affective Neuroscience, described emotions as “… the way we feel. It is not a sensory feeling like pain when you step on a stone … or a bodily feeling; emotional feelings are very large bodily and brain responses to the world.  They tell animals what is important for survival inside the brain. They are very deep value systems in the brain, and when they become imbalanced, they cause emotional problems … too much fear, too much anger, etc. The emotional systems want to do something: they want to hit, they want to run away, they want to caress, they want to cry, they want to laugh …” (Source:

Little did we care about emotions in the past 100 plus years of dog training. Though dogs were awarded sentient status a while back, in training, only observable behaviors mattered; behaviors we either wanted to reward for future repeats or to modify, and emotional responses we wanted changed. After all, dogs were expected to fit into our world – assimilate; and if they wanted to live with us, they needed to behave, listen and obey. Being dog was not enough, and dogs’ needs were grossly irrelevant.

Emotions affect behavior; our brain knows what it needs!

But Emotions affect behavior, and in a time of advanced and widely available neuroscience research, ignoring what happens inside of the brain is not doing us any favors. With all the information of internal processes at our fingertips, we shouldn’t still debate whether giving in to a puppy’s cries for connection (formerly referred to as “attention seeking”) is spoiling them or the right thing to do. We shouldn’t still be divided over the long-term effects of whatever training techniques we subject our dogs to. The answers are there, in the science that explains how and why emotions affect behavior; in the science that urges us to reconnect with our very own innate needs for social/emotional connection. Over more generations – even centuries – than we can ever count, colonizing societies have normalized emotional suppression within their societies, including their dogs. The good thing is that, with the help of neuroscience, and in particular Dr. Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, we can undo this muddled mess and return to our ancient, innate roots of emotionality that have guided us through evolution for as long as there has been even just the hint of a social brain, and thus shift our primary focus from training to social/emotional connection not only with one another but with dogs.

 There are things that we want people to understand. We have seven primary emotional systems. They are SEEKING – the motivation to find something beneficial. RAGE, which is the urge to compete and defend.

FEAR, which is the urge to run away and seek safety. LUST - the urge for sexual gratification or sexual pleasures and reproduction. CARE is the urge to nurture and connect. PANIC/GRIEF (aka sadness or loneliness) is the urge to reconnect. And PLAY, the urge to socially connect in the most joyous way.

Watch this video chat where Scott Stauffer shares this info with the Service Dog Handler Group
 at Working Paws, a Facebook Group ran by the Crazy2Calm Canine Coaches.  

As Scott Stauffer, creator of Affective Dog Behavior and guest speaker in the referenced podcast, tends to state so eloquently: We are hardwired for connection, and so are dogs. What people need to understand is that, amongst the 7 Primary Emotional Systems (Dr. Jaak Panksepp), there is one that is referred to as CARE, and another known as PANIC/GRIEF. Without these two, social life wouldn’t be what it is.

CARE and PANIC/GRIEF counterbalance one another in that CARE feels good and PANIC/GRIEF feels painful. It’s that pain of PANIC/GRIEF, which urges us to reach out for social/emotional connection. Imagine a baby crying. Whether the infant is in physical or emotional pain, the crying (PANIC/GRIEF) surely alerts a parent or other caregiver into action. Now we pick up the baby, hold it close to our heart (CARE). Cognitively, we may be wondering what’s wrong, but instinctually, we automatically hold the baby close; instinctually, and without needing to learn the science first, we feel that this closeness has a soothing, healing effect – not only for the baby, but for us, too.
Through evolution, our brain is designed to make us reach out and ask for help.

CARE and PANIC/GRIEF reciprocate continuously. Sometimes the emotional pain of PANIC/GRIEF is so subtle that we don’t yet feel it as pain but just a little sensation that has us ask for a hug or reach out to pet our dog. But at other times, we are painfully aware of our need to connect either with someone specific or others in general. When this need for connection is not met, the emotional pain gets worse. See – without going into lengthy scientific detail – the release of endogenous opioids is the basis of what makes us social, and CARE is a great way to cause that release. PANIC/GRIEF, on the other hand, is experienced when the levels of endogenous opioids decrease. Thus, the pain of PANIC/GRIEF is due to endogenous opioid withdrawal; that pain is real, and it can be quite severe. Since endogenous opioids are our natural painkillers, when we feel emotional pain, we are also more susceptible to physical pain. And it’s this pain, emotional or physical, what makes us reach out to one another, just like the little infant does crying to be held close.

As guardians for our dogs, we need to realize that dogs share the same emotional systems in the brain that we have – as do all social animals. The same emotional needs, the same emotional pain, the same mechanisms that help them survive and thrive as best as possible in whatever environment they find themselves in – in the moment. How we, as their guardians, help meet their emotional needs for connection, self-expression and agency, in other words, how we have their backs without coercing them into emotional suppression determines how they respond to their environments.

The social brain is hard-wired for connection, and we cannot redirect, 
desensitize or counter-condition our way out of emotional pain.

While Affective Dog Behavior understands the importance of task training especially of service dogs, we want to emphasize that training can never replace the need for true, heart-felt emotional connection, for cuddles and comfort touch. Every dog, regardless of age, past experiences, breed or genetic predisposition needs connection, and humans do, too. Thanks to the back and forth between CARE and PANIC/GRIEF, connection helps both, dog and human, and a solid relationship foundation will make training that much easier, as it helps all parties involved feel safer when everyone’s emotional needs are met unconditionally before, throughout and after training.

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Links to more information from Affective Dog Behaviors:

Thank you to the team at Affective Dog Behavior for putting together this post!
Be sure to thank them by checking out their website.