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  • Taryn

I am going to say it again- Emotions Matter

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Something I read recently has been bothering me and I think it is important enough to address, even though it may be a confusing subject. While I have written in-depth previously about the importance of emotions in behaviour and learning, I wanted to address two specific ideas that have come up repeatedly recently, as I think they are potentially misleading and are vast oversimplifications of a complex subject. They are:

1. Emotions do not cause behaviour 2. Emotions cannot be measured – only behaviour can be measured and therefore we should not attempt to evaluate emotions in training and behaviour modification.

Most of the people putting these ideas forward are followers of APPLIED BEHAVIOUR ANALYSIS or RADICAL BEHAVIOURISM – a school of thought pioneered by BF Skinner, based on the premise that behaviour, rather than mental states, should be the focus of psychology. They include some really excellent trainers, people who I admire and follow, because they are force free, positive reinforcement trainers who work really well with animals and people and improve animal welfare through their work. Unfortunately though, many have a tendency to bash any discussion or recognition of emotions by other trainers or behaviour practitioners, despite the fact that their own ethics and deeply caring attitude towards animals drives them to avoid using training methods that would make the animal feel “bad”. They clearly care very much about how the animals they work with feel and so ironically care very much about emotions.

The trouble with Applied Behaviour Analysis as a form of “therapy” in the field of psychology, is that in its pure form it focuses on results and not on the experience (emotions) of the patient during therapy. Consequently, there is absolutely nothing preventing therapists from using all four quadrants of operant conditioning, depending on what they believe will be most expedient. One of the founders of ABA, I. Ovar Lovaas “used electric shock (as well as yelling and hitting), as aversive stimuli with children on the spectrum” (i.e. autistic children) .(1) While ABA was hailed for decades as the best “treatment” for Autism, autistic adults are now speaking out and calling it abuse. Many have been found to be suffering from PTSD as a result of ABA . (2)

I don’t know about you, but I consider this to be fairly horrific and it makes me very wary of claiming that I follow ABA or hailing ABA as the be-all-and-end-all in training, as is so common today in many circles. I do not believe that all four quadrants of operant conditioning are equally acceptable as a means of influencing behaviour and I believe that taking emotions into account in training and behaviour modification is critical for welfare - so while I certainly believe in the laws of learning, I cannot claim to be a follower of ABA.

Now to address the two ideas I raised earlier: Firstly, is it really true that emotions do not cause behaviour? Well, no, I would not agree with that statement at face value. In fact, I would say that emotions drive behaviour to a large extent. All animals do stuff (behaviours) that improve their emotional state and they avoid doing stuff that causes their emotional state to deteriorate. We want to feel good and when we don’t feel good, we will do something to change that. If we do something that makes us feel bad, we will avoid doing that thing again. So, our behaviour is really all about regulating our physical and emotional wellbeing.

The counterargument is that the emotional state that influences a particular behaviour did not come out of nowhere, it was caused by some external stimulus or previous behaviour – so emotions are simply responses to external events and so are in a sense “behaviours” themselves. (Yes, I know that sounds really complicated, but Skinner believed that emotions and thoughts were also behaviours.) (3) But is it really that simple? Take a person who suffers from depression or bipolar disorder – what external stimulus or behaviour triggered their general emotional or mood state? If they simply change the environment, will they feel better? While exercise, self-care and a healthy lifestyle may be helpful in managing a mood disorder, most people with depression will tell you that they have little control over their emotions at their darkest times and simply going for a jog is not going to make them feel better. Yes, there are environmental reasons to feel sad or down, but there are also chemical reasons that may exist simply due to genetics. In such cases, medication to address this underlying physiological cause is needed.

I also believe very strongly that I have observed specific traits in regard to mood/emotional states in particular breeds of dogs. I won’t mention which ones, because I don’t want to have that particular fight right now, but in my experience there is a certain breed group/type that seems to have a disproportionate number of individuals who from puppyhood are generally either “down”, withdrawn and miserable or frustrated and prone to “rage”. Both these emotional trends can be attributed to brain chemistry and the fact that it is so prevalent in this particular type of dog makes me believe very strongly that there is a genetic component. Does this mean that external stimuli or behaviour will not influence this emotional state (improve or make it worse) and as a result we won’t see behaviours that we would not have seen without that stimulus? Of course not, but a dog with a different “emotional predisposition”, as it were, would also likely have responded differently from a behaviour point of view.

Emotions are also not as simple as stimulus/behaviour → (emotion) → behaviour. Emotions may arise or be maintained by a string of different stimuli over a long period of time. Stress, pain, diet, fulfilment/lack of fulfilment of needs are all things that will influence emotional state or general mood over a period of time. Emotions do not always fit a “Stimulus A results in Emotion B” model – you cannot attribute a single stimulus to an emotion in many cases. If diet has an impact on emotions (and we know that various nutrients are involved in the manufacturing of neurotransmitters, so it certainly does), it could take days, weeks or months for that “stimulus” to have an effect on mood. What I am trying to say, without getting too technical, is that it is NOT that simple!

To address the second idea, that emotions can’t be measured, so we should only observe behaviour, the reality is that anybody working with animals who claims not to be able to read an animal’s emotional state and how what they are doing is affecting that animal’s emotional state, really should not be working with animals in the first place. A huge part of being a trainer or behaviour practitioner is being able to read the body language of the animal you are working with. Why? Because the body language tells you how the animal is feeling! We cannot assume that because we are not intentionally using aversives to train, that the dog, cat or horse we are working with is enjoying the session. We cannot assume that because the behaviour we want increases, the dog is enjoying the training. A dog can find a training class aversive despite how kind everyone is being. They may be stressed by other dogs in the class or could be anxious about traffic noises. They might find that their owner is unintentionally putting too much pressure on them or they may get tired. A dog might suddenly throw a whole lot of repetitions of a behaviour, because they are getting frustrated and not because they are being enthusiastic. A dog that is punished with a leash correction for reacting to another dog may intensify their aggressive response, not because the correction was reinforcing, but because “survival mode” (Flight/Fight) in the brain is activated by danger and then maintained or escalated by the physical pain of the correction. Animal trainers HAVE to be able to read emotions and know what they are seeing to avoid disaster and to ensure an optimal learning environment for their students.

I believe in the power of operant conditioning and I am a bit of a training geek when it comes to examining the laws of learning – I am endlessly fascinated watching the learning process and seeing behaviour change through shaping and positive reinforcement. However, I believe that emotions matter and that we HAVE to observe them and take them into account when dealing with any animal in any training situation. Behaviour does not tell you enough. Behaviour is not the only goal. Emotional wellbeing that results in healthier behaviour choices is my priority.


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