There has been a long-established link between emotions and learning. Much of learning is based on the outcomes, for example - can a dog sit when asked? But do we ever ask ourselves – is the dog happy?
Emotion is a vital element of learning, it drives attention, which in turn drives acquisition and memory. However, the workings of the emotional system are little understood and it has only been recently discussed that animals might have emotions.
Anyone who owns a dog, however, knows that dogs can experience happiness, sadness and frustration. We don’t need a scientific study to tell us this. So why don’t we consider this when we are working with our dogs?
I strongly believe that it isn’t just the emotion that our dog experiences when training that needs to be considered but also our emotions. If we are frustrated or struggling ourselves this is not the time to work with our dogs, it’s the time to have fun with them. Because the type of memory that is needed for learning is the episodic memory. Episodic memory is also related to experiences and emotions.
Episodic memories come tagged with context. The sensory data, what the dog smells, sees, hears, alongside emotions, all become part of the learning. These emotions are then triggered when the dog retrieves an episodic memory. The problem can be when they sometimes remember these contextual tags but not the actual learning. Often with dogs the context is so overwhelming that learning is context specific or that it overshadows what we are trying to teach them.
Happiness gives an edge when we need to learn. This is because it gives the brain a chemical edge, happiness and positive emotions create dopamine and serotonin. When these substances are released into the brain it has a positive effect on our memory and ability to learn. They help the brain to create connections faster, help you to memorise new information quicker and help you to access it faster in the future.
So, next time you go to pick the treats up after a long, stressful day, just think how your emotions are going to affect the training. This is especially true if you are trying to change your dog’s behaviour.