Updated: Jun 10, 2021
Understanding how Dopamine works in a dog brain to help anxious, aggressive and reactive dogs learn and feel better about life.
Sometimes known as the happy hormone, often associated with sports, play, training and other feel-good activities. Too much or too little can cause issues for the body. Dopamine is released when your brain experiences a reward, but also when your brain expects a reward, and this can lead to addiction.
References to Dopamine and dog training seem to go together. Trainers talk about ‘Dopamine hits’, ‘Dopamine rush’ or ‘being bathed in Dopamine’, but what is Dopamine and why is the connection to dog training so relevant?
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical, neurotransmitter made by our brains and a dog’s brain. It is associated with the experience of reward and one of the reasons why we and our dogs ‘feel good’. Dopamine is also released when dogs are expecting a reward, anticipation of reward which leads to a dog seeking out events and experiences that were rewarding in the past.
If our intention is to give dogs a rewarding life, then their daily activities need to produce healthy amounts of dopamine. Too much dopamine can lead to agitation, repetitive action (compulsive behaviours), over arousal. Too little results in lethargy, depression, social withdrawal, lack of focus or concentration.
These dogs are Border Collies and genetically predisposed to react to movement and attempt to control it, herding. At some point one of these dogs has discovered that horses may move, presenting a herding opportunity, which felt good. Now they are quietly anticipating the movement of the horse behind the fence because their brain has remembered that pattern.
If we could examine these dog’s brains, we would find lots of dopamine and other ‘feel good’ chemicals, due to the anticipation of the feeling of reward. Once a dog has discovered that these activities produce reward, we cannot extinguish this by punishment. We cannot change how the dogs feel about the activity by correction, instead we need to teach the dog how to access the same reward elsewhere through games or teach them to manage their own arousal in this environment.
The dogs in the picture are managed and opportunities to herd are controlled, they are also given outlets to herd away from livestock and wildlife. However, if they were left to their own devices and allowed to herd uncontrollably, their brains could have too much dopamine.
Appropriate levels of activity and feel-good chemicals leave our dogs content, able to rest and relax. Too much, and an overly aroused dog will appear frantic, frenetic, either unable to rest or sleep or collapsing in exhaustion. Under these conditions, dogs may also snap, bite, fight with others or cause themselves injury. If you are experiencing any of these behaviours from your dog it may be worth your while to check that their day is well balanced with lots of rest interspersed with appropriate play and exercise.
Dopamine and Learning
Another reason why dog trainers talk about Dopamine, is due to the link between the brain chemical and positive reinforcement. Modern dog training is reward-based, we seek to teach the dog how to access rewards rather than avoid punishment. If the behaviours we are training begin to increase, happen more often, then we can say that positive reinforcement has happened. Dopamine needs to be present for reward and reinforcement to take place.
Dopamine and Anxious Dogs
Dopamine producing activities can provide some relief from fear and anxiety, whilst helping a dog to learn. Play can be very therapeutic for dogs. Dogs will only play if they feel safe and healthy, a sick or frightened dog is unlikely to play, however, a slightly anxious or depressed dog may benefit from play sessions.
If your dog is feeling anxious consider the following:
Is your dog getting enough opportunities to take part in breed specific activities – breed specific activities are very satisfying for dogs, they release dopamine into the brain and provide an effective antidote to stress and anxiety. Find out what your dog was bred to do. If your dog is a mixed breed you may see the traits of one breed as more dominant than the others. Are you able to give your dog a safe outlet for these traits through play?
Balanced Lifestyle – Is your dog’s life in balance? Keep a health and activity log, dogs need plenty of rest and sleep with short periods of activity in between.
Play – what are your dog’s favourite toys and games? Remember, that a dog’s idea of what constitutes a toy may not be the same as ours. Do they play safely, no injury to themselves or others? Are you able to interrupt their play now and again?
Structure your training – clean training sessions allow your dog to experience the anticipation of rewards. Learn more on how to do this
Dopamine production can also be enhanced by diet and it is worth doing some research or speaking to your vet to discover if your dog requires a diet change.