Home Forums Canine Behavior More on arousal and training in working dogs

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    Karen Overall

    We often think that range or working dogs may be as desired, but that would be unusual. When we select for behaviors, we may inadvertently select for extremes and those extremes may be pathological, as was the case in one other presentation at this meeting. This happens in both working and pet dogs, but the manifestations may differ, and the outcomes may differ.

    Regardless of species and whether you are looking at normal or pathology, In experimental neuropsychology, arousal is defined as the level to which you react and reactivity is defined as both the # of behaviors shown and the # of circumstances that trigger those behaviors. One could also argue that arousal could be measured by level to which the reactive behaviors occur.

    However, this is all assuming normal behaviors. In other words, the Yerkes-Dodman law applies in normal, non-pathological dogs. In normal, non-pathological dogs you can get dogs who become so aroused that they are beyond helpful decision making and become more impulsive.

    In truly pathologically anxious dogs – which may have been the dog in the video – the situation is more complex and worse for both the dog and outcomes. In pathologically anxious dogs thresholds for reaction are lowered significantly compared to the “normal” population (and this can be measured on a distribution with the best data from laboratory rodents) so that the dogs will show the extreme behaviors in contexts and at levels of stimulation not seen in most dogs. Additionally, pathologically anxious dogs react with extreme speed so that the time before which they can be pulled back almost cannot be helpfully detected. These dogs also react to a much higher level, show a constellation of distress and extreme behaviors outside the range of those seen in non-pathological dogs, and take a very long time to return to baseline, which may also change after these events.

    In this lecture, I noted that the quality of dog’s behaviour changed – this was seen in the video: the high pitched, repetitive, distressed barks and vocalizations have a series of sonographic signatures associated with situations eliciting distress and often seen in situations when dogs are having difficulty gaining information or making helpful use of the information they have available. This sympathetic arousal creates a heightened hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal response that raises cortisol levels. At high levels animals – none of them – can learn because to generate enough brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) needed to simulate cystosolic element binding protein (CREB) to encourage neurons to make the new proteins required for learning requires intermediate levels of high levels of BDNF which are available only at intermediate levels of cortisol. As a result, learning is inhibited for much longer than the event due to cortisol acting a hormone response element that blocks genetic transcription, and because the chronically elevated cortisol decreased the number of neurons in the hippocampus and amygdala (areas required for learning) and makes the hypothalmus more reactive. All of this also appears to be involved in an inflammatory response which may damage some of the brain’s buffering capacity.

    In short – the dog in front of us is telling us a lot about how they perceive what we are doing with and to them and what we are asking them to do. What we think we are doing and what we are doing may be 2 different things.

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