FAD3 - Day 1


FAD3 Day 1 - Arousal Level

What is Arousal

We discussed the science behind arousal in great detail in FAD2 - Day 2 so if you haven't checked that out yet, be sure to do it. Instead of repeating what we discussed last year, we want to focus on the basics of what you need to know before we discuss “arousal” for the next 4 days.

It's important to know that arousal is a natural, chemical response designed to help animals survive. Our bodies are designed to regulate that arousal naturally based on threat analysis however some of us as not as good as analyzing danger as others. We know human adolescents often go through a period of “no fear”, especially if they've never been allowed to learn about dangers, OR extreme fear, if there was some childhood trauma or lack of experience, that makes them prone to fearing everything. Yes, genetics plays a roll in whether or not an animal will be optimistic or pessimistic. But previous experiences are a large component to threat analysis and that is due to the emotions that we hold on to from those past experiences. We can't change the past experiences we've had, but we can use them to impact our future and that of our Canine family members.

Emotions Behind Arousal 

Our past experiences that we remember the most often contained a high amount of emotional feedback. Those emotions can be positive (happy, excited, feel good)  or negative (sad, lonely, hurtful) emotions. No doubt all of us can think of a happy memory, perhaps getting that new puppy, and a sad memory, perhaps losing a senior dog. Both positive and negative emotions are normal and a part of life. 

The stronger or more powerful emotions are, the more our body produces the chemicals that control arousal. Therefore something animals consider non-threatening produce very little arousal and something considered to be threatening produces high arousal. Yet we know our dogs experience a bigger range of emotions then what we would consider as threat or non-threat. Science is yet to determine just how broad that scope of emotional understanding is for dogs, but we know they experience peace (calm contentment), joy, and passion/attraction on the positive side and rage, fear, and discontent on the negative side with varying degrees of how those emotions impact the arousal state.

This leaves us constantly trying to do a balancing act with our dogs, allowing them to experience their natural emotions yet doing our best to make sure the positive emotions are much more frequent and stronger than any negative emotions they experience. We will get into that a bit more as we go through the rest of this workshop.

It's also important to note that whenever our dogs are having a large emotional response causing a higher level of arousal that's going to impact other biological systems including the “thinking” part of the brain that controls cognitive abilities. High Arousal (positive or negative) can very quickly turn off cognitive abilities and send an animal into instinct mode where their only thought is survival. This is what happens when our dogs slip into “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” mode. My goal as a dog owner and a Canine Coach is to prevent this extreme emotional reaction to the best of my ability. 

A common dog trainer quote is, “Emotions drive behavior!” Lower arousal states often give us slower and smaller body movements. Higher arousal states give us faster, louder, and larger behavior. Then if a dog does go over threshold into a fight, flight, or freeze mode, we will see the biggest, almost screaming for help, behaviors.

Understanding High Arousal

When dogs are in an elevated state of arousal, it's most obvious because the dog’s ability to focus on their handler decreases. The problem is, there isn't a magic number or measurement of arousal that states a dog below ## can focus and a dog above ## can no longer focus. This is going to fluctuate based on previous experience and residency. When Belle, just 5 months old at the time of recording, gets even slightly excited all focus is gone. Azul as an adult with lots of previous experiences designed to help him learn to self regulate his emotions & arousal level can get pretty excited and recover quickly. This can even vary from day to day based on mood, health, recent triggers, etc. Tomorrow we will be looking at this in more detail.

When dogs are at an elevated arousal state, their cognitive abilities will change. A sightly excited dog can still do most well known behaviors. But as they become more even basic behaviors begin to struggle. I love to read studies about cognitive studies in canines, but there is not very much definitive information about cognition. The individuality of dogs along with various strengths and weaknesses would make in nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly where a dog is capable of cognitive thought vs too aroused to think clearly.

I think most of us would agree that our dogs hit a point in arousal where they definitely can't focus or think cognitively. This is where the fight, flight, and freeze modes come in. This stage is commonly referred to as red-lined or being over threshold. At this point a dog is reacting solely by instinct. This is more reflexive thought based on what has worked in the past for the individual dog. In some dogs, it's almost like a switch flips and the dog moves from our lovely pet into a wild animal state. We want to do our very best to prevent our dogs from becoming this aroused. Learning is no longer possible and all we can do in those moments is help our dog exit the situation so their arousal level can come down to a point where they can think again.

We share a short video clip in the workshop video that shows Lana, a Yooper Paws client, going very close to red lined. You can find this video here.

Game 1:  Play, Cue, Play with Retrieve Video

Game 2: Tug with a Brain Video