Emotions are contagious. This comes as no surprise to anyone who’s ever lived with a dog, and is such a well-known phenomenon that it has a technical label: limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is defined as a mutual exchange and internal adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to one another’s inner states. To put it simply, just by making eye contact with another mammal (your dog, your spouse, etc), you can not only know what emotions that mammal is feeling but may also begin to feel those emotions yourself.
So, how does this relate to dog training? Limbic resonance is a powerful thing, and it can both help and hinder our training interactions with our dogs.
Dogs and humans both feel strong emotions. While many scientists have been hesitant to dicuss the emotional lives of animals due to fear of being accused of anthropomorphism, we now know that dogs’ brains contain emotional centers that are nearly identical to people’s. Anyone who has lived with a dog has no doubt that their canine companion feels joy, fear, disgust, anxiety, and many other emotions, and the physical structures responsible for these feelings light up in brain scans the same way that a human’s would when a person reported these same emotions.
This is not to say that dogs’ emotions are identical to ours. Dogs lack the highly-developed pre-frontal cortex (responsible for complex thoughts) that we humans have, which means that certain emotions (such as guilt) are probably not possible for them.
Regardless of their exact emotional range, emotional contagion is no small matter. This is especially true in situations where you or your dog are stressed or worried. Simply looking into your stressed dog’s eyes is likely to raise your stress level, and if you’re anxious about something, your dog is likely to be influenced by your worry. There’s a good reason many vets take dogs into the back room for procedures involving needles, and it has less to do with your dog than it does with you. I can’t tell you how many times during my work as a groomer or vet tech a dog who had previously been calm and relaxed for a grooming or veterinary procedure suddenly panicked when the owner came back early. Sometimes it was almost like a switch getting flipped: the dog would catch sight of the owner’s furrowed brow and worried frown, and suddenly begin snapping at me or trying to escape.
The good news is that we can also use limbic resonance to our advantage. By simply becoming aware of your own emotional state, you can begin to influence your dog for the better. If you’re stressed or anxious, working on calming yourself first will do much more for your dog than trying to work through it and ignoring your own distress. Dogs are great emotional mirrors, reflecting and amplifying your feelings. There’s a reason we include deep breathing (for people!) in our reactive dog classes, and there are often times when I will ask a person to hand me their dog’s leash or put their dog in his crate until they can calm themself down. You do no good to your dog if you’re not in a positive state yourself.
It is possible to learn to remain relaxed and self-assured for your dog. People often comment on how calm and patient I remain when working with even the most difficult dogs. Those who’ve watched my training progress with my own reactive dog, Layla, can attest that this isn’t natural for me! Learning to manage my own emotions took time, practice, and awareness, but the great thing about this skill is that once you’ve mastered it, you’ll never forget it (and will probably find it useful in many other areas of your life as well). Learn to take stock of your emotional thermostat, and take the time to focus on calming yourself down if you notice you’re starting to run a bit hot.
How do your emotions influence your dog? Have you found any helpful techniques for keeping yourself calm in exciting or stressful situations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!