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Feelings are important.

Life in general would be much easier if feelings weren’t such a major influence in how our day to day lives play out.  They drive people (and animals) to action.  Never underestimate the power of emotions.  Feelings and emotions have driven people to suicide, to monumental sacrifice, to re-prioritize their life, to make incredibly poor choices and bold good choices, to stand up for what they believe in.  Feelings are often the unconscious forces driving behavior.  Feelings cause us to react, to put up or lower our defenses, to brace for impact, to laugh out loud, to cry uncontrollably, to worry about the things we cannot control, to give of ourselves, and on and on.  Most often we do not decide how we are going to feel and then feel that way.  It just happens…we feel…often intensely.  We may be moved a little or a lot.  Feelings may drive us to inspired performances, relaxed and tender moments, or debilitating displays of uncontrollable emotions.  Feelings cause us to react, to put up or lower our defenses, to brace for impact  Feelings are important.  Feelings are also important in dogs.

This is an interesting topic.  Just by using the word feelings and dog in the same sentence, causes mixed reactions in people.  I think this is, in part, because we have long been cautioned not to anthropomorphise (which means to attribute human form or personality to things not human).  Also, Merriam-webster.com lists 6 definitions and 170 synonyms and related words for the word “feelings”.  The word “feelings” can mean many different things.  When I speak of feelings and emotions in dogs, I am not referring to higher order emotions (like guilt, regret, mercy, humanity, etc.).  Dogs learn from their past and live in the now.  They view things in terms of unsafe, potentially unsafe, and safe.  They form incredibly strong bonds with the other dogs, people, and even many other species (given the right circumstances).  They are incredibly perceptive and sensitive to the energy being put out by others.  They experience physical effects of emotional extremes….adrenaline, cortisol, endorphins.  They are incredibly sentient beings with preferences (some of which are strong), favorites, and dislikes.  

Feelings are certainly a driving force behind the behavior of a dog.  They feel.  Those feelings and emotions drive them to action.  They may be moved a little or a lot.  Feelings cause them to react, to put up or lower their defenses, to brace for impact.  Feelings can drive dogs to inspired performances, relaxed and tender moments, or debilitating displays of uncontrollable emotions.  We’ll dive further into this subject in the posts to follow, but for now the take home point is this…feelings and emotions in dogs play a major role in influencing their behavior.

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More importantly….

What’s even more important than recognizing that feelings are important in this way is the knowledge that we can actually build, craft, shape, and change the underlying emotions in our friend, the dog.

  • As we introduce our dogs to the world at large, we can proactively help them develop the feelings we want them to have towards the things that they encounter…building the feelings that will help them be more functional, more tolerant, and less stressed.  For example, by pairing loud noises with good news for them, loud noises become no big deal and even something to look forward to; something that predicts good things to come.  New people….good news.  New places….good news.  New situations….good news.
  • We can change existing underlying emotions, the feelings that are driving a given behavior in a specific set of circumstances.  With time and consistency (good management can help us be consistent), we can replace underlying negative emotions (like fear, distrust, insecurity, and anxiety) with more useful, positive ones.
  • We can emphasize the feel we want in any given behavior we are teaching….build the feel into the behavior.  This can lead to inspired, intense performances, settled companions, and even soft, tender exchanges.  I put a lot of emphasis on the feel I want in any given behavior I am teaching, reinforcing, encouraging, or replacing.  

We’ll get much more into each of these three angles in future posts.

For now, I want you to think about the specific feeling of optimism….and helping your dog become more optimistic.  Dictionary.com defines optimism as “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome”.  When dogs are optimistic about the exchanges they will have with us, the people they’ll meet, the places they’ll go, the situations they’ll encounter, they are ready, willing, and better able to a have a positive outcome.  What can you do to help your dog become more optimistic?

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