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Why Emotions While Training Matter

“We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior science. They drive observable behavior.” (Anderson, 2018) Canine coaching will be much easier on both the dog, coach and owner if we pay close attention to how the dog thinks and feels throughout the session. Being able to identify the outward signs that show when the dog is feeling confident, stressed, frustrated or scared can help us to understand what is going on internally. We can then use this information to adjust our methods, the difficulty level of the task or modify the setup of the environment in order to best suit the dog.

Emotions are what push a dog towards sources of pleasure or rewards, and away from things that cause pain or that are fearful. When a dog is experiencing something pleasant, there is a physiological process that occurs within the body and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine are released which help produce even more good feelings. If while coaching we ensure that our dogs are enjoying themselves and being rewarded for their efforts in a positive way, we can influence the production of these neurotransmitters and create a situation where our dog will continue to want to work with us.

On the flip side, when we don’t consider the emotions experienced, or fail to consider the way a dog may be feeling in a situation, there is the possibility that we could be reinforcing the production of the stress hormone cortisol. We could, without realizing it, create a situation where our dog begins to feel negatively towards coaching sessions. This might happen if we attempt to force our dogs into situations that they find stressful (training in a loud, busy location), fail to reinforce with good timing, or present rewards that are not necessarily what our dog is expecting. Getting disappointed ourselves when our dogs don’t ‘get it right’ and displaying this with subtle body language changes (dipping our heads, slumping the shoulders, saying ‘no, no, no’ etc.) can also impact the way our dog feels in a coaching session and can result in a negative association with the activity.

When afraid, a dog’s sympathetic nervous system is activated and the fight or flight response may be triggered. If trying to coach a new behaviour and our dog is experiencing fear but we continue to push on we may end up with a dog who shuts down and refuses to interact at all. Noticing the signs that show our dog is afraid, moving them away from the situation and then working slowly, at an easier level, to build up their confidence with the task is needed at these times.

Using punishment in order to get a dog to do something we want in a coaching session can be dangerous. By not taking the dog’s needs into consideration and instead using force or punishment we could be setting up the dog to suppress behaviour that may indicate a bite is coming, cause physical harm, exacerbate the fear and possibly cause it to generalise to things that sound or look similar to the punishment used. Providing an alternative behaviour and rewarding that instead acknowledges how the dog is feeling in the moment, but also tells them that there is something else they can do to get the outcome that they are looking for.

Dogs mirror our emotions. We can impact the emotions felt in a training session by being upbeat, smiling, using a slightly higher pitched voice for praise and making coaching sessions fun by tapping into our dog’s personality and tailoring exercises and rewards to what they enjoy. If we have highly energetic dogs, using a more peaceful and calm approach in sessions can help to ‘bring them down’ a bit so they can focus on the task at hand. Keeping our dogs happy in a coaching session will keep them wanting to work with us, make the coaching more successful and will result in a stronger bond.

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