Emotional Well-Being and Sensitivity to Reinforcement and Punishment

I have written before about the relationship between emotional state and the ability to cope with stress. Stress resiliency is so important because the inability to effectively cope with stress is linked to a wide variety of mental and physical health disorders. In dogs, this often manifests as an increased likelihood of behavior issues. And, of course, a decreased quality of life. Not everyone responds to stress equally. We’ve all known individuals who have been through horrific experiences and still seem to thrive or individuals who struggle to cope with even mild stressors. If we can understand what drives these differences, we will be better able to help animals. Lecorps and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia recently wrote an article on this topic called “Negative expectations and vulnerability to stressors in animals” (2021). In this month’s blog post, I summarize their excellent and thought-providing article and add my own thoughts about how their information may impact training and behavior modification in dogs.

In humans, we know that expectations about outcomes are linked to emotional state. More optimistic individuals show evidence of increased resilience and decreased depression and anxiety. The opposite is true in pessimistic individuals. More and more, scientists are coming to believe that a similar relationship exists in non-human animals.

Optimistic individuals tend to anticipate reinforcement in the face of uncertainty, while pessimistic individuals tend to anticipate punishment (or no reward). Expected utility theory (Loewenstein et al. 2008) states that when faced with uncertainty, individuals make decisions based on their subjective assessments of the potential outcomes (i.e. reinforcement or punishment) and their likelihood. Cognitive bias tests are designed to test how optimistic or pessimistic animals are. However, there are other considerations that could impact the results of these tests. One factor is how sensitive the animal is to reinforcement and punishment.

Lecorps and his co-authors assert that pessimistic animals may perceive rewards as lower value (hyposensitive) and/or punishments as more aversive (hypersensitive). If this is the case, that means that—for that individual—“the fear of punishment outweighs the joy of reward” (Lecorps et al. 2021). This is so relevant to training dogs! If we are trying to train a behavior and the dog is hyposensitive to reward, our job is going to be much harder. If we are working with a dog on a behavior issue, such as fear or resource guarding, and they are hypersensitive to aversives, changing their behavior will probably be more challenging (because they are more likely to respond more intensely to negative experiences).

It’s also important to understand that there appears to be a distinction between “liking” and “wanting”. An animal may ‘like’ a particular reinforcer very much. For example, if rats are given a choice between rat chow and sweetened water, they usually choose the sweetened water. However, ‘liking’ a reward and being willing to work for that reward are not the same thing! Willingness to work for a reward, or motivation, is often referred to as ‘wanting’. It turns out that wanting seems to be largely governed by dopamine, and liking seems to be largely governed by endogenous opioids.

Let’s take a step back and take a look at the implications of some of this information. How many times has someone told you that their dog is not food motivated? They will often say this even if their dog is eating sufficiently and not underweight. As trainers, our response is often that the dog is food motivated, but we just haven’t found the correct reinforcer yet. But what if the dog likes food just fine but isn’t actually motivated to work for it? That means that if food is handed to them and they don’t have to exert any real effort to attain it, they’ll be perfectly happy to eat it. But they may not be willing to do hard things for the same reward! These dogs can be challenging to work with. If you feel you’re working with a dog like this, targeting their motivation may be more effective than finding the “right” reinforcer.

We already know that withholding food will typically increase the motivation to work for it. This can work well for some dogs. However, this may not always be the best option, particularly if you have a dog that can tolerate food deprivation for long periods. Now we have a hungry (and presumably grumpy) dog that is still not motivated to eat. Sure, we could probably get them there if we waited long enough, but at some point, the drawbacks will exceed the benefits. What other options do we have?

One option is to try varying the reinforcer. Perhaps the dog will work better for toys than food, for example. Or sticks, bubbles, or chasing animals (safely). Changing the presentation of food may also help. Many dogs will eat food dropped on the ground. Throwing the food can often dramatically increase a dog’s motivation to work for that reinforcer. Tossed treats are my Aussie’s absolute favorite way to get food rewards. This method is particularly helpful for young, energetic dogs.

Another option is to address the dog’s emotional state. (Obviously, we also want to rule out any potential medical issues.) Lecorps and colleagues suggest that animals that are hyposensitive to reward may also experience weaker and/or less frequent positive emotions—and animals that are hypersensitive to punishment may experience stronger and/or more frequent negative emotions. In addition, we have evidence that more pessimistic rats were less motivated to work for food and ‘laughed’ less when tickled (Rygula et al. 2012, 2015). Taken together, this suggests that there may be a relationship between emotional state and the motivation to work for reinforcement. If that’s true, then improving the dog’s emotional state may increase their food motivation. Enrichment, exercise, and positive social interactions with friendly, trusted people and dogs are all good ways to improve a dog’s emotional state.

Pessimistic animals tend to be more vulnerable to stress. This may be because they are likely experiencing more frequent and/or more intense negative emotions. Therefore, when a stressor is introduced, it is adding to an already negative emotional state. In addition, research in people has found that optimistic people tend to use more active coping skills. This means the prefer strategies that “eliminate, reduce, or manage stressors or their emotional consequences” (Solberg Nes and Segerstrom, 2006 as quoted in Lecorps et al. 2021). Pessimistic people, on the other hand, rely on more passive coping skills. That is, they are more likely to “avoid, ignore, or withdraw from stressors or their emotional consequences” (Solberg Nes and Segerstrom, 2006 as quoted in Lecorps et al. 2021). Using active rather than passive coping skills is important because active coping skills are widely associated with better mental health outcomes. (For the record, I think the above is the best definition of active and passive coping skills that I have ever seen. It’s very clear and concrete.)

In line with human studies, research has found that animals (including dogs) with more negative expectations were slower to approach an unfamiliar person or object. This behavioral response is more consistent with passive, than active, coping. In addition, pessimistic dairy calves show stronger emotional responses to uncontrollable stressors, and pessimistic animals may be more sensitive to pain. (This makes me think of the happy-go-lucky lab that nails her head on something and continues on as if nothing happened. Perhaps labs are especially optimistic—it would certainly help explain their typical personality!) It’s worth noting that researchers are still working out the relationship between expectations, emotional state, and stress coping and we still have many unanswered questions.

Keeping in mind that we still need more research on this topic, here are my thoughts on how this may manifest in dogs. Some dogs may be less responsive to reinforcement and/or more responsive to punishment. This could make them more likely to be ‘pessimistic’ and could be linked to decreased resilience and well-being. These dogs may show decreased motivation to work, be more likely to develop behavior issues, and be less responsive to behavior modification. If training is less effective that could also lead to more conflict between the dog and people (or other animals) as well as fewer opportunities for exercise and enrichment (if the dog is difficult to manage or easily frightened). Simply understanding these connections is an important first step for finding more effective preventions for and solutions to behavior issues.

Keep an eye out for more research on these topics to confirm (or disprove!) my thoughts above. In the meantime, if you are working with a dog that is difficult to motivate, try varying the delivery or type of reinforcement, decreasing their stress and/or increasing their positive experiences. You may find that addressing their emotional state has a dramatic impact on their ability to change their behavior!

For further information on addressing emotional states, I encourage you to register for my upcoming course The Science of Fear. You can also keep up-to-date on the latest research by subscribing to Research Bites (as a Research Bites member, you’ll also get a discount on my courses). For further reading on similar topics, check out the following blog posts:


Lecorps, B., Weary, D.M., and M.A.G. von Keyserlingk. 2021. Negative expectations and vulnerability to stressors in animals, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 130, pp. 240-251.

Loewenstein, G., Rick, S., Cohen, J.D. 2008. Neuroeconomics. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, pp. 647–672.

Rygula, R., Pluta, H., Popik, P. 2012. Laughing rats are optimistic. PLoS One, 7 (12), e51959.

Rygula, R., Golebiowska, J., Kregiel, J. et al. 2015. Effects of optimism on motivation in rats. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 9, p. 32.

Solberg Nes, L., Segerstrom, S.C., 2006. Dispositional optimism and coping: a metaanalytic review. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev., 10, pp. 235–251.

Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Science Matters

The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

Recent Posts