Dog trainers use the old-fashioned term “drives” to talk about dogs’ basic personality or temperament. There is social or pack drive, fight drive or defense, prey drive, food drive, sex drive. Neurologists and contemporary animal psychologists don’t use the term “drive” much any more. Instead they will refer to parts of the brain–the amygdala is involved in flight or fight. It also plays a role in excitement. When a dog is hunting, chasing, fighting, playing tug, retrieving, the amygdala is in play producing the feelings of excitement, fear, agitation and anticipation. The thalamus plays a role in regulating attention and arousal. When you are calmly focused on something, your thalamus is hard at work. That crazy dog jumping all over you trying to get you to play with him? His amygdala is all fired up. Scratch your dog’s ear in exactly the right spot. Notice him feeling every move you make, calmly absorbing your attention. Thalamus all the way.
I am over simplifying. Whenever we perform any action many parts of our brains are involved. But I have found that my dog-training students benefit from the simple model: thalamus (calm/focused), amygdala (excited, possibly angry or fearful).
We train working-line dogs for Search and Rescue. None of them are made to be pets. In a pet home, all our dogs would be like Marley. Our dogs have full access to the emotions(drives) of the amygdala. From that follow behaviors that most pet owners dislike. They bite, tug, chase and bark way more than any pet owner could tolerate. Although they are terrible as teens, they can turn into absolutly phenomenal adult dogs. The secret is balance. We work on both sides of the equation–thalamus and amygdala. We balance a 10 minutes session of focused and controlled obedience with three or four minutes of intense ball play. Done correctly, over time, my terrible teenage GSD will become a dog who is energetic, intense, confident and capable of self-control.
Lucky working dogs are born balanced, high drives–they are capable of intense activity and intense focus. They don’t have excessive amounts of fear. Nor do they have too little fear. They are neither too clingy nor too independent. Around other dogs, they are confident, neither overly submissive or a bully. With a dog like that, all the trainer has to do is keep the pup in balance as she matures. But most dogs and most people have a natural tendency to be stronger in some areas than others. So we adjust the training regimen to enhance the weaker parts.
Lucky kids are born with balanced temperaments. The rest of us start out as colicky babies and go on from there. Addiction, ADD, ADHD, Tourettes, truancy, social phobia, poor impulse control, and emotional outbursts of all sorts. The mechanics are much more complicated in humans but the path is the same:engage the student using things that he or she is already good at and likes doing while teaching the lagging skill.
Every semester students at my school apply for a number of internships. I’m part of the team that makes those assignments. I also supervise the student assigned to dog-training. At the start of this past semester, I thought I already had this semester’s intern picked. The student was bright, affable, good around the dogs and seemed extremely interested. It was common knowledge around the school that he was next semester’s dog training intern.
Much to every one’s surprise, I didn’t pick him. Over the semester it became clear to me that he lacked balance. This student’s assets are intellect and charisma. He has untapped leadership potential, but I noticed a certain lack of enthusiasm for the actual work of dog training–the mundane, routine details. That’s not the end of the world. Part of growing up is learning how to stay on task to completion. But until he get’s into the habit of getting right down to work, and working until the job is done, he is going to need more structure and supervision than I have the time (or the temperament) to supply. The dog-training internship wouldn’t have helped. It is a very independent job. Lots of contact with animals. Not much chance to work with other students and not enough direct supervision.
I found him another internship where he will be leading other students and working with a supervisor with aproven track record of developing a solid work-ethic in similar students. That is the plan anyway–like all good teachers and all good dog trainers, I have sufficient confidence in my ability to read kids and dogs to make decisions like this. But I am also a realist. It might not work. I am painfully aware of the limits of my perceptions. Here I am fumbling around with the language of psychology and neuroscience. My predecessors used the language of good and evil, sin and virtue. Someone will, no doubt, come up with an improvement on my approach before too long.