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The Story of Finn – Big Feelings

In this episode, I use my own dog Finn as a case study for discussing several different aspects of behavior. I talk about emotional reactivity, affective style, and impulse control.

Here is a link to the study about sleep and brain development in dogs that I refer to in the podcast.

Episode 7 - The Story of Finn.mp3: Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

Episode 7 - The Story of Finn.mp3: this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

Dr. Spaulding:
Hello and welcome. I'm Dr. Kristina Spaulding, and this is the Research Bites podcast brought to you by Science Matters Academy of Animal Behavior, LLC. We foster conversations about science and its application in animal training and behavior in an effort to improve well-being for animals and the people they live with. Please enjoy geeking out about the science of behavior. Before we get started today, I want to tell you guys about a new course that I have coming up in October. I am very excited about this course. For a while before I had a name, I was simply calling it the big course. We now have a name. It's called Unlocking Resiliency, and this is a 16 week course about stress and the impacts of stress and how we can build resiliency in our dogs to help them cope with that stress. It's really a course about promoting emotional health and well-being in our animals. The course covers a lot of different topics in great depth. So we talk about welfare and well-being. We talk about the biology of behavior, including evolution, neurobiology, genetics and epigenetics. We talk about the physiology and the impacts of stress. We talk about emotion and cognition and the role that they play in wellbeing and behavior. We talk about individual variation and why some animals are more susceptible to stress than others. Then we talk specifically about preventing and mitigating stress and building resilience and stress coping.

Dr. Spaulding:
And I also talk about how all of these things apply to behavior issues or mental health in animals. As I said, the course is 16 weeks, so that is 16 hours of live lecture. Those lectures are also recorded. So if you cannot attend live, you can still sign up. And then we also have for full students 16 hours of live discussion with myself and other students. This is a much more in-depth course than I have offered before. There will be homework assignments and an assessment and at the end, full students that successfully complete the course will earn a certificate of completion and a logo to go on your website. If you'd like more information on this course, please go to my website www.sciencemattersllc.com and click on professional courses and find the dropdown menu for unlocking resiliency. There will also be a link in the show notes to take you directly to the course page. Hi guys. Welcome back to the Research Bytes podcast. Today I'm going to delve into Fin in more detail, looking at him as a case study and the different things that he taught me and how I think they can apply to other dogs. So last podcast, I talked a little bit about Fin and his personality. He is a very, very intense dog. He has issues with reactivity and dog aggression and also a lot of handling sensitivity, some noise sensitivity because of the noise sensitivity.

Dr. Spaulding:
He has fear in the car. He's got a lot going on. Having said that, I actually think he's a pretty happy dog most of the time. It's only in certain instances that he really struggles and I think that a lot of his struggles or maybe all of his struggles really come back to the fact that he has very big feelings and very high arousal. And this is what brings me to affective style. So I think I talked about this a little bit in the last podcast, and I just want to talk about it in more detail here. I also have a couple of blog posts on it. So if you go back to the blog at www.sciencemattersllc.com, and that will also be in the show notes, if you go back to the blog, you will find a lot more detail on this. But basically affective style refers to the emotional. Responding of an individual. And there's three components to affective style. The first one is the threshold for stimulation and how low that is. So animals that have a lower threshold for stimulation or a lower threshold for arousal are going to respond to less intense stimuli. So it's not going to take as much to trigger an emotional reaction in those individuals. The second component has to do with how quickly the emotions peak and how strong they are.

Dr. Spaulding:
So animals that have big feelings are going to have a faster peak that's often also higher. So you have this very steep line in terms of developing strong emotions very rapidly, but also having in many cases higher intensity than other individuals. And then the last component is the recovery or the duration of the emotion. Frequently, animals with big feelings are going to have a longer recovery or a longer duration of those emotions and these components. Having these big feelings, having more easily triggered, more intense, longer lasting emotions are frequently associated with. Having more negative emotions as well. So if you're very often having these strong feelings that can put people or animals more on edge, and if they're frequently having negative emotions triggered, it's going to make them more sensitive to other bad things happening. And so if you're already in a bad mood, it's going to make it easier for something else to upset you or set you off. And so very often individuals that have these big feelings are struggling more with their wellbeing and mental health than those that do not. So that is one of the things that I learned from Finn, is that I caused me to sort of pay more attention to this information when I came across it. Right? This idea that certain individuals are just more emotionally reactive and that can be caused by a number of different things.

Dr. Spaulding:
But to some degree, that may just be an innate trait that some animals are just biologically more emotionally reactive than others. And then experience, of course, can play into that role as well. So if you had a history of multiple negative life events, that's one of those things that often will also contribute to strong emotionality. The next thing that I want to talk about is this concept of coping styles. And this is like personality in dogs. And there's a lot of different ways of looking at personality and coping styles is only one of those. So we are going to talk about coping styles and the two different kinds of coping styles. And I'm telling you that these are considered personality traits, but it is not an extensive list of all of the different types of personality traits that dogs may have. This is one way of looking at it, but I do think that this is very valuable and actually this research has primarily been done in other species, not dogs, and it's been done in multiple different species fish, birds, mammals. And this pattern has been found across multiple, different species. There's actually been very little research done in dogs relative to other species, but the research that has been done is consistent with what has been found in other non dog animals. So as I said, coping styles refers to a personality type.

Dr. Spaulding:
So this is something that is enduring across time and space. So that means that different time points, you are likely to see similar coping styles and you're also likely to see similar coping styles in different contexts or situations. The two coping styles are proactive and reactive. So proactive individuals tend to be bolder, they tend to explore more, and they tend to be less reactive to the environment. And what that means, as far as I can interpret it, is that they are more goal directed in the sense that they are not being pulled off course by all kinds of little stimuli in the environment. They are able to stay more focused. And they also show a different physiological profile than reactive individuals. So proactive individuals tend to have a relatively stronger. Sympathetic nervous system response. So when an animal goes through stress, there are two different processes that occur. The first is the sympathetic nervous system response. This is what activates a lot of the fight or flight. Changes that prepare an animal for action. So this includes things like increased heart rate and pupil dilation. And so you can think of the sympathetic nervous system as preparing the animal for action. And it involves the release of what is now called epinephrine and nor epinephrine, but used to be called adrenaline and noradrenaline. So when we're talking about that adrenaline response, that is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

Dr. Spaulding:
The other component to the stress response is the release of stress hormones. So in the case of humans and dogs, the primary stress hormone is cortisol. And cortisol also contributes to the fight or flight response and prepares the animal for action. But it's a little bit longer acting a little bit later acting. And it can also we believe that one of the things that cortisol plays a role in is freezing. So to get back to our proactive versus reactive individuals, proactive individuals, again, tend to be more bold, more exploratory and have a relatively stronger adrenaline response or sympathetic nervous system response compared to their stress response. The other thing that's interesting about proactive individuals is they also tend to be more aggressive. And in this case, when we're talking about aggression, the way that this is typically tested in the lab on rodents is that you're taking. Uh, you have to rodents. You have a resident that is in their familiar enclosure, and then you have an intruder that is put into that enclosure with the resident, and frequently that will cause a conflict or fight behavior. The bolder or more proactive individuals are more likely to show aggression in those circumstances compared to the more reactive individuals. I think it's important to note that we are talking about a more offensive form of aggression in this context, most likely. And much of the aggression that we see in dogs is probably defensive aggression.

Dr. Spaulding:
And so it probably is not something that you're going to see as much in proactive individuals. So I hope that that makes sense. I'm going to wrap up this discussion of proactive versus reactive, and then we can talk a little bit more about those different types of aggression. So proactive individuals are bolder, more exploratory, more aggressive, and have a stronger, sympathetic nervous system activation relative to their stress response. Reactive individuals, on the other hand, are more passive and inhibited. They're less aggressive, and they tend to have a stronger cortisol response. So this is that stress hormone release. So that tends to be strong, relatively stronger compared to their adrenaline response. And remember, I just said that cortisol tends to be associated in many cases with freezing. It's not always associated with that. But that seems to be one of the behaviors that it plays a role in. And so hopefully you're getting this picture of these sort of two different profiles of dogs. And what happens is that these behaviors particularly come out or these profiles are particularly strongly expressed when the animal is under stress. And so these are considered styles of coping with stress. And the animals that are more proactive. Coopers tends to deal with stress more effectively than the animals that are more reactive. Coopers. And that is evidenced by things like how likely they are to get sick, for example.

Dr. Spaulding:
So animals that are under long term stress, that are not dealing with stress well, are more likely to get sick. And you see that those passive individuals are more likely to get sick. Also in humans, passive coping is more associated with mental health disorders than active coping. Also, in case you guys have heard this, talked about in other contexts, proactive coping is also sometimes called or the proactive coping style is sometimes called bold or active, and the reactive coping style is sometimes called shy or passive. So those essentially all refer to the same thing. So proactive, bold or active, reactive, shy or passive. So I just want to talk a little bit more about what I was saying about aggression before. So. In dog behavior, we tend to lump. Any kind of growling, snapping, biting, etc. into the category of aggression. However, in other fields, including ethology and human psychology, aggression is usually broken down more finely than that. So in ethology there is you would have this big umbrella of agonistic behavior, which simply means conflict behavior, and that is broken down frequently into defensive behavior, which is happening when an animal feels threatened and. Aggression. Which is happening when an animal is attempting to achieve a goal which is typically to gain or retain access to resources. And I think this is a really important distinction because one of them involves likely involves fear, which would be the defensive behavior, and one of them does not.

Dr. Spaulding:
And so I believe that it's problematic that we group all of those things together, because I actually don't think that they are necessarily the same thing. And so when we're talking about bold animals being more aggressive, that definition of aggressive is more consistent with the excuse me, ethnological definition of aggression, which has to do with maintaining or attaining access to resources or maybe achieving a particular goal. It's more what we would call instrumental in the fact that the animal is more intentionally engaging in aggressive behavior in order to achieve a desired outcome that is contrasted with defensive behavior, which is an emotional response to threat. And I think much of the behavior that we label as aggression in dogs is actually defensive behavior. I don't think it's all defensive behavior, but I think a very, very high percentage of it is in human psychology. They break it down slightly differently, but it's very similar to the ecological definition. So in human psychology, you can have reactive aggression or proactive aggression, which again is very similar to those coping styles that we're talking about. And so reactive aggression is going to be an emotional response to a perceived threat, and proactive aggression is often going to be a less emotional or colder. Engagement of aggression or use of aggression to attain a specific goal. Now, of course, these two things are not completely mutually exclusive.

Dr. Spaulding:
And so by putting them in categories like this, we are slightly oversimplifying it or maybe a lot oversimplifying it. But I do think these two different approaches are helpful for thinking about. The different types of aggression. So coming back to Finn, I believe Finn has a very proactive personality type. He is in many situations very bold. He's very exploratory, and he definitely appears to have a very strong adrenaline or epinephrine response. I haven't measured it, although that may be happening. So if we do that, I will try and remember to give you guys an update, but. He fits the descriptions of that personality that I have seen in the research. And so this was very interesting to me because it helped me understand this distinction of these different kinds of conflict behavior that we tend to always call aggression, but may actually be sort of motivated by different things and potentially even controlled by different brain areas. And the other component of this that Finn really taught me about was the importance of arousal. So when we talk about emotion, we often talk about two dimensions of emotion. The first one is Valence, which really just has to do with the flavor of the emotion. Is this a positive or negative emotion? And then the second one is arousal, which is how intense is that emotion? And the more intense the arousal, the more difficult that's going to be for the animals who appropriately regulate their emotions.

Dr. Spaulding:
And so arousal becomes another really important component of emotion, and especially if you look at it in combination with Valence, so valence can be positive or negative. So positive emotions are emotions that are essentially rewarding. And negative emotions are emotions that are aversive. And then you can have different intensities of those emotions, right? So you could have high arousal with a positive valence and that would be somebody who's very happy and excited, or you could have negative valence with high arousal. And that could be extreme fear, extreme frustration, extreme anger, things like that. And you can also have low arousal with different levels of valence, and those are basically just less intense versions of those emotions. It's also possible, though, as far as I can tell, this hasn't been fully worked out yet. That animals that freeze and shut down are actually experiencing higher levels of stress hormones as opposed to arousal. So arousal is typically defined and it's. It's actually often not defined. Let me clarify that. So I've had some trouble finding research in this area that actually defines arousal. I think they just assume that people know what it means. But in most cases where it is specified, arousal seems to refer to the sympathetic nervous system activation. And so high arousal dogs, remember, are also going to tend to be more proactive, that bold, exploratory, high sympathetic arousal profile.

Dr. Spaulding:
I believe, although it has not been tested yet, I would love to see this tested, but I believe that dogs that stress up probably fit this proactive category more and dogs that stress down probably fit the reactive category more. And so we may consider those dogs as having high arousal, which remember is that physiological, sympathetic nervous system response. But if we actually tested these dogs, what we might find is that their stress hormones are sky high and their adrenaline levels are not actually as high as, say, a dog that's stressing up. So, again, this is something that needs to be tested. We do not have research on this, but this is my suspicion. And if that's the case, it suggests that we may need to do behavior modification as well as medication with these dogs differently with these two groups of dogs. So right now, this is really just sort of more food for thought. I would encourage you guys to really pay attention to this as you're working with dogs and see if you feel like dogs fit these profiles or not. And of course, just like with all behavior, it's not going to always be black and white or rarely be black and white. But I do think it is a useful framework for thinking about behavior in certain cases. So we've been talking a lot about big feelings and arousal.

Dr. Spaulding:
And that brings me to the next thing that I have learned from Finn, which is the importance of emotional regulation. And we know that the prefrontal cortex is very important for emotional regulation. In fact, it's important for all different types of self regulation of behavior. So that would include things like impulse control as well as maintaining focus on something, for example. And all of these things. Combine this emotional regulation, this impulse control and the ability to maintain attention or focus, all of them combine to create sort of the level of self control that a dog has in any particular situation. And what's interesting to me is all of these things are in large part controlled by the prefrontal cortex. So the prefrontal cortex is often inhibiting those really strong emotions. It's inhibiting those impulsive behaviors, and it's inhibiting that distraction so that an animal is able to maintain focus. And if the prefrontal cortex is not working properly, that means that the animal is likely to struggle with all three of these things emotional regulation, impulse control and attention and focus. And of course, if you're having particularly strong emotions. Controlling your behavior is going to also be very difficult. So the function of emotion is to motivate behavior. So if you're having very intense emotions, that is going to be a very strong motivator for engaging in particular behaviors. So right there, if an animal is having a lot of big feelings, that is going to immediately cause a struggle with impulse control.

Dr. Spaulding:
If you combine that with the prefrontal cortex that is not fully functioning now, you really have a problem with an animal that is struggling both to inhibit their emotions and to inhibit the behavior that's being motivated by those emotions. So what kinds of things impact the prefrontal cortex and how well it functions? There's three big things. The first one is developmental stress. So if an animal goes through stress during development, so that would be a mom is stressed when she's pregnant, it would be stress in young puppies. Well, it would be stress and puppies and it would be stress and adolescent dogs. So probably up to somewhere between a year and a year and a half. All of those periods are developmental periods and toxic stress, which is overwhelming stress or chronic stress that happens during that developmental period damages the prefrontal cortex and impacts its ability to do its job. And often those impacts are long lasting throughout adulthood. The other thing that can impact the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is very closely related to developmental stress in many cases, is trauma. So animals that have experienced trauma, which is very severe but not necessarily long lasting stress, also tend to have problems with the functioning of their prefrontal cortex. And the final thing that impacts the functioning of the prefrontal cortex is simply age and maturity.

Dr. Spaulding:
So we know that in humans, this part of the brain is not fully developed until sometime in the twenties. We don't have as good of data in dogs, but one recent study that came out, for example, suggests that this is something that. Is probably also true for dogs in the sense that the prefrontal cortex does not finish maturing until early adulthood or late adolescence. And so this was actually a study on sleep. It was done by Riker at all. And it's titled Developmental Features of Sleep Electrophysiology in Family Dogs, just in Case Someone Wants to Go Find It. And there's a lot of complicated sleep science in here that I honestly don't understand very well. But one of the main conclusions of the paper was that based on how the sleep electrophysiology changes throughout the development of the dog, the researchers do not believe that the dog brain is fully mature at one year old, and so that is probably in the middle of adolescence or maybe late adolescence. It's probably going to depend on the size of the dog and obviously it will vary slightly from individual to individual. But this does suggest that like humans, the dog's brain is not fully mature by late adolescence, mid to late adolescence. So again, what this tells us is that. When we're working with adolescent dogs and we know this, right, because we've interacted with adolescent dogs before.

But when working with adolescent dogs, we need to be very careful about what we're asking them to do. We need to make sure that we're asking them to do things that are actually within the realm of possibility for them. And this is the other thing that I learned from Finn. I was bound and determined that I was going to teach him to walk on a loose leash. I got him as a puppy. I got him at nine weeks old. And I, you know, I'd never had a dog from nine weeks old. And I was going to teach him to loosely loose leash walk right away so that it would be easy. And I was very, very wrong. So. We worked on loose walking for, you know, and when I'm saying loose leash walking in this context, I am not talking about a short term heel where he's walking at my side and focused on me for short periods of time that we were able to train. I am talking about spending an entire walk without him dragging me down the road or the path that we were not able to attain until he was much older. And I continued to work on it until one day I was at the park. We were working on loose leash walking. He was doing beautifully well. And then I released him and he completely and totally melted down.

He was barking. He was jumping up and biting at me, which wasn't necessarily super unusual for Finn, but hadn't happened in that context for a while, meaning at the park. And it was much more intense than usual. And it was at that moment that it occurred to me, Oh, I'm asking him to do something that is nearly impossible for him. And he is trying really hard to give me this. He is doing his best to give me this behavior that I am asking him to do, and it's really taking a toll on him. And I can't remember exactly how old he was at that point. Probably definitely in adolescence, maybe around a year ish. And it was at that point that I said, Och, he can't do this now. He doesn't have the impulse control to be able to take an entire walk without dragging me down the road. So instead what we did is we switched to a front clip harness and when possible, when safe to do so, I would walk him on a long line and then we continued to work on loose leash walking and little bits and pieces, and eventually he did learn it and now he pretty much walks on a loose leaf. She's five now, but this is something that was really, really, really challenging for him at that age. And it was my one of my first really huge wake up calls that.

You can't necessarily train everything and that sometimes the dogs are just not capable. And of course, I know this in the context of behavior, right? If we're trying to address behavior problems. But I had this image in my head that as long as I started training early enough, I basically could do what I wanted with him. And I know I know I knew at the time even that this wasn't true. Right. I would have never said to a client that that was true. But when it's your own dog, sometimes you get a little blind to reality. And the other thing that I will mention about Finn, in case you're wondering, like, oh, you know, you've got him at nine weeks and he has all these behavior issues and what's his history? So he came from a breeder. He came from someone who I think is a really reputable breeder, very responsible, worked really, really hard to socialize him and do all kinds of work with him before he came home. But I think I mentioned this in my last podcast, actually, but in case you haven't listened to it yet, he had a difficult birth and he almost died. And he they believe that he lost oxygen for some period of time during the birthing process. And so most likely, unfortunately, he experienced some kind of brain damage. And if I were to guess, I would say that he may have experienced brain damage in his prefrontal cortex.

Now, this is not something I'm not going to take him to a neurologist. It's it's it may be something that we couldn't even see. Right? Like it would probably be very, very difficult to diagnose. But I have talked to vets and other behavior consultants and behaviorist and a veterinary behaviorist, and we're all kind of in agreement that that seems like a very likely explanation. We don't I mean, we'll never know for sure, but it's likely. So that is the story of Finn. And I hope this has helped you understand dogs that have big feelings better. Many of you, I'm sure, are also interested in what do we do to help these dogs? I very recently wrote a blog post on this, so if you have not read that yet, I suggest you go back and read that and that link again will be in the show notes. So thank you, everyone and I will talk to you again soon. Thank you for listening to the Research Bites podcast. If you enjoyed this content and would like to learn more, please visit. www.sciencemattersllc.com for more information. You can also find the link in the podcast description. The website has information on upcoming events as well as my monthly research webinars and upcoming courses. I hope to see you there. Thank you.

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Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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