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  • Writer's picturePlay With Purpose

How Games Work to Re-Shape the Brain

As a games-based concept trainers, we work to build up concepts in our dog’s brain by playing games to prepare them to be able to successfully cope with all of the situations they will encounter throughout their lives. We avoid the punishment-based methods of trainer 1's and balanced trainers, and while we utilize positive reinforcement as trainer 2's do, we train *for* situations rather than *in* situations as much as possible. You can read about the three types of trainers, as well as the concepts that are the building blocks of the brain in the posts found here:

Playing games shapes the brain so it can make better choices…but how, and why, does this work?

“Am I aware? Is it important? Is it good or bad?” Dogs are asking themselves these three questions all the time. Problems occur when the answers to the questions are, “Yes. Yes. Bad!” as then we see a variety of reactive behaviour. Problems can also occur when the answers are, “Yes. Yes. Good!” as some dogs do not know how to behave when excited. Games help change the way dogs respond to these questions in any given situation and so impact the resulting behaviour.

Events are happening all the time in the environment and our dog senses them- through smell, sight, sound…there is no getting away from that. As soon as something is sensed there is awareness and the level of awareness that any dog shows is completely based on the individual. Hyper-vigilant dogs will be aware of *everything* whereas a very calm dog may pay no mind to the exact events that send another dog into a fit of barking. Unfortunately, for anyone with very aware dogs, we cannot control all the events of the world…but we do have some control over the way our dog *perceives* those events and we can do that in a few different ways.

One way is to work to change the way our dog perceives events that cause them to react. Games-based concept trainers are able to identify concepts lacking in your dog and then choose games to play that help to build those concepts. A dog who reacts fearfully to new people, objects or places may be found to be lacking in the concept of optimism, and so by playing optimism games we can strengthen this concept and re-shape the brain to view novelty as a good thing rather than something to be fearful of.

Working to change our dog’s bucket is another way that concept trainers make use of games to help re-shape the brain. Positive and negative events that occur throughout the day contribute stress to our dog’s bucket. As these stressors build up over time, if our dog is unable to ‘let them go’ quickly enough, eventually a threshold of tolerance is reached, the bucket overflows and we see undesirable behaviours such as barking, lunging, snapping, pulling on lead etc. There are games to play that help increase the size of a dog’s bucket so that the impact of life’s stressors is less and less…we’re building their ability to think in arousal/excitement. Also, there are games that help increase the size of the hole in the bottom of a dog’s bucket thus enabling the dog to ‘let-go’ of worrying things much more quickly so that the cumulative impact of the day’s events never gets to the breaking point…this builds the concept arousal up arousal down.

Managing lifestyle and the choices we make for our dogs is also key. We are in control of pretty much every aspect of our dog’s lives…we decided when they eat, when they get a walk, when they get to be off leash, go outside, what toys they have, what dogs they get to play with (or not) – basically we have all the power! Concept trainers understand that there are times when perhaps a walk is not the best thing for our dogs, and maybe a day at home playing some calm games is best for the bucket. Calm dogs have emptier buckets and so are able to think and make better choices than those who are near threshold and ready to break. We know that preparing our dog well in advance, at home, for things like vet visits or having to wear a cone or muzzle is going to be beneficial as we are arming them with skills to cope rather than just placing them in worrying, unknown situations and expecting them to know what to do. There are games to promote calmness and games to prepare for any situation – and all of them build a concept and that re-shapes the brain.

When we consider how all these things come together – changing the perception of events from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, considering the impact of stress on the bucket and taking time to make solid lifestyle choices, we can see how games work and result in real behaviour change that lasts. As we play games to accomplish all these things, we end up changing the perception of events and so decrease the awareness of events in general.

We can change a dog’s answer to those three questions:

“Am I aware? Yes. Is it important? Yes. Is it good or bad? Good, but I know how to respond!”

“Am I aware? Yes. Is it important? Nope! I can disengage and it’s none of my business!”

“Am I aware? No…I’m too engaged with my human right now to care about that other dog over there!”

“Am I aware? No…I have a huge, bottomless bucket and spend most of my day in a calm state of mind – can I have a Kong please?”

Games are powerful. Concept training is progressive. Dog training has gone through trainer 1 and trainer 2 phases…the games-based concept training of trainer 3's is the way forward. Re-shaping a brain through positive play with the bonus of building a strong bond and relationship with your dog…how cool is that?

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