Dogs need to be curious

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Dec 22, 2015, 04.00 AM IST

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Curiosity in dogs is important

I write to you this week from San Francisco again. The last time I was here, I wrote about the bulldog I was working with. She displayed a strange behaviour – she was obsessed with going to the beach for her walks and was completely disinterested in all other walks. During walks she showed no curiosity and did no sniffing. I had then identified that she was addicted to the adrenalin-high that she was getting at the beach. We had to get her mind away from it to rediscover her natural curiosity.

Today, she is an entirely different dog. She takes a deep interest in her walks, sniffing everything around, even Christmas decorations in people’s yards. I asked her humans how they did this. They have put in a lot of work. But they stuck to some basics – they stopped frequenting the beach and instead started taking her out to different places that she could explore. New places that caught her attention. Gradually, over time her natural curiosity has returned.

This is great news because dogs, in fact all animals, gain a lot of pleasure from SEEKING. In her book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin talks about the primal emotions of animals. There are many ways to categorise emotions. The classification she uses is based on which part of the brain the emotions fire up. Primary emotions are ones that fire up the primitive parts of the brain. She identifies four such primitive emotions – rage, prey drive, fear and curiosity/ interest/ anticipation. She also talks of four primary social emotions, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The last bucket of curiosity, interest and anticipation is one that Dr Panskeep describes as SEEKING. It stimulates a very specific circuit in the brain. It’s this that makes us seek interest in our environment. It’s the firing of this emotion that helps us learn about our environment, find what benefits us and what we need to avoid. It’s critical for survival. The way nature ensures that we proactively learn about our environment is by making the stimulation of this circuit in our brain pleasurable.

So if an animal stops exploring the environment around her, she is missing out on experiencing a basic pleasurable emotion. Consequently, the animal’s learning is stunted. Not firing these necessary circuits in the brain might have long-term effects on brain development. Getting high on adrenaline constantly, on the other hand, wears the body and brain down. Hence it’s absolutely necessary to engage the natural curiosity of a dog.

This means that a dog that starts anticipating food is actually feeling joy at that point. Grandin points out that when animal brains are studied, it reveals something fascinating – this SEEKING circuit is only active as long as the dog is anticipating the food. Once the food appears and the dog starts eating, this circuit is turned off! So, one easy way is to hide the treats. Treat search and toy search is a great way to do that. Exploring new places is another way that worked very well for this bulldog’s family, here in SF. Hide and seek with people is great too as long as people don’t overreact when found, shooting up adrenaline. If you are out on vacation with your dog, try to hide further and further away from your dog, forcing your dog to “track” you. Remember, the search in itself is pleasurable. It’s not always about the find.

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