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Affective Dog Behavior - a new concept 

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

By Diana Kastner

Before I dive into this very fascinating new direction dog training could possibly take, I better explain what “affect” or “affective” means and also mention three special people, representatives of specialized fields: Jaak Panksepp, affective neuroscience, making a case for the inclusion of emotions in behavior science; Dr. Susan Friedman, psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the application of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to captive and companion animals; Scott Stauffer, dog walker and trainer whose goal it is to bridge the divide between two branches of behavior science and incorporate both in the future of canine behavior shaping.

In human psychology, “affect” is defined as:


"Affect refers to the positive or negative personal reactions or feelings that we experience. Affect is often used as an umbrella term to refer to evaluations, moods, and emotions. Affect colors the way we see the world and how we feel about people, objects, and events. It also has an important impact on our social interactions, behaviors, decision making, and information processing." (

Or, as Wikipedia puts it: Affect is a concept used in psychology to describe the experience of feeling or emotion. ….. In psychology, affect mediates an organism's interaction with stimuli. The word also refers sometimes to affect display, which is “a facial, vocal, or gestural behavior that serves as an indicator of affect” (APA 2006).”

Jaak Panksepp (representing Affective)

“When scientific conversations cease, then dogma rather than knowledge begins

to rule the day” -Jaak Panksepp

A dear friend of mine, my mentor in all things dog, has pointed me in the direction of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. Jaak is known as the “rat tickler” and best known for his pioneering research and discoveries in the field of animal emotions. His work is way too complex and fascinating to compress it in just a few paragraphs, but I am happy to add an interesting 2-part interview for you to enjoy before I move on to the next person. Here are some of my take-aways from this interview; the majority of which is in Jaak’s own words and is not a reflection of the way I would express myself:

Jaak has a very personal way of defining emotions. Emotions “… are the way we feel. It is not a sensory feeling like pain when you step on a stone … or a bodily feeling; emotional feelings are very large bodily and brain responses to the world. They tell animals what is important for survival inside the brain. They are very deep value systems in the brain, and when they become imbalanced, they cause emotional problems … too much fear, too much anger, etc.; these emotional systems want to do something: they want to hit, they want to run away, they want to caress, they want to cry, they want to laugh …” In turn, Jaak describes affective neuroscience to be “… the scientific discipline that tries to understand the emotional feelings of the brain, how many are there, how are they organized anatomically inside the brain, what are the neuro-chemistries.”

Per Jaak’s discoveries, on a fundamental level, all mammals share the same emotions; the same 7 primal emotional systems: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF and PLAY. The brain is the only organ that shows the footprint (layers) of evolution; what is most ancient is in the middle of the brain, further down; what is more recent is more outside in the brain and higher up. Therefore, basic (primary) emotions, the ones we are born with, originate far down in the brain. Anger and fear came early and are lower down in the brain. Sadness, joy and play came later, so they are higher up in the brain and more lateral. “Rewards and punishments are feelings of the brain; we learn to do things that increase good feelings and we stop doing things that cause bad feelings, which helps us survive.”

“Unfortunately, these discoveries are not important to behavior scientists; neuroscience is not important. Behaviorism only looks at input and output.” But as the mind might be built upon emotions (“if emotional systems are harmed dramatically, consciousness itself begins to disappear”), Jaak’s discovers shouldn’t only be acknowledged, they need to be utilized in behavior shaping efforts. “Emotions are the tools that tell us what supports our life and what takes away from our life. Scientists closed the book on talking about emotions.”

One of the more fascinating emotional systems Jaak termed the SEEKING SYSTEM. The SEEKING SYSTEM gives the enjoyment of life; it looks for resources for survival, puts ideas together and generates interest and creativity in the world; it also controls learning, and it interacts with higher parts of the mind that are initially empty (like a computer prior to programming). The CARE SYSTEM depends heavily on the SEEKING SYSTEM and is also responsible for learning. All emotional systems are talking to each other.

Another fascinating emotional system identified by Jaak is that of PLAY. Yes, animals play, and many animals have a form of laughter. “Touch is the source of PLAY. Hearing is a form of touch – a special form of touch. Happiest PLAY is in physical PLAY.”

Per Jaak, emotions are the most important form of communication. Though the Cortex is a vital part of the brain, it is not needed for us to be emotionally human. The Cortex defines what we believe, the emotional parts of the brain determine how we feel.

--Part 1

--Part 2

Now that I have covered the AFFECTIVE side of my post title Affective Dog Behavior, I will move on to Dr. Susan Friedman, who will give us some insight into the BEHAVIOR side of things.

Dr. Susan Friedman (representing Behavior)

“A commitment to using the most positive, least intrusive, effective interventions slows us down so that we think before we act, and make choices about the means by which we accomplish behavior goals.” -Dr. Susan Friedman

There is never really a shortage of acronyms in the dog training world, created to help us shape canine behaviors. ABA and ABC are the two I am going to mention here.

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis; it is a type of therapy that focuses on improving or changing specific behaviors, as well as adaptive learning skills. In very simple terms, ABA changes the environment to change a behavior. Though ABA has its roots in human learning, Dr. Susan Friedman has pioneered the application of ABA to captive and companion animals. Dr. Susan Friedman is a psychology professor at the Utah State University.

ABC = Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. Antecedent refers to the environment or the events preceding the target behavior. The behavior is the behavior of interest or the target behavior. And the consequence is the outcome of the behavior, what happens right after the behavior.

Within these behavior shaping models, the dog’s mind (emotions, feelings) is of little to no interest. Per Dr. Friedman, “… the brain is NOT CAUSING BEHAVIOR! It is correlated with behavior, just like the environment; so neither the brain nor the environment alone is sufficient; together they produce behavior; and to understand behavior only from the brain point of view, is fine, if that is your interest, but if your interest is training and teaching, we don’t need to understand how the brain works, in order to change behavior from a learning point of view. We have to understand how the environment influences behavior, and then we assume the brain is jogging along with us, making the changes it needs to be a partner in producing the behavior that we see. So, we are never working with brain information directly as behaviorists and behavior analysts, as teachers and trainers; our best tool is environmental changes, and we assume the brain is working all the time … changing all the time.”

While Dr. Friedman doesn’t deny that animals are feeling, thinking organisms, what happens in the animal’s mind is not observable, not measurable. “Measurement is the hallmark of scientific behavior; without that measurement there is no science. It is the repeatability of measurement that is one of the things that makes science different than other ways of knowing; if we want to appeal or rely on a scientific way of knowing, replicable measurement is the heart of everything; so, I don’t deny anything I can’t see, I just say I need the data to act on it. … To minimize assumptions, we rely on observable behaviors and observable conditions”

“To see the animal’s behavior as feedback about what is adequate and what is inadequate in the environment we provide is the ultimate power to help.”

Scott Stauffer (representing the Dog)

So, if, as Jaak Panksepp claims, all mammals share the same primal emotional systems, that means our dogs do, too. Many animal behaviorists are beginning to acknowledge these emotional systems and incorporate them in their studies and work. However, in the dog industry, we are still following a rather lopsided path of behavior shaping that excludes the consideration of the dog's mind ... to be more specific, the dog's emotions, though acknowledged as part of a dog's whole being, are greatly ignored in traditional behavior shaping methods and practices.

In her interview, Dr. Friedman has given some plausible explanations as to why that is. Yet, neuroscientific evidence is so strong that, rather than disregarding the very important aspect of the animal’s mind for the sole reason that it cannot be directly observed or measured, we should embrace it and work that much harder towards understanding it.

And this is where Scott Stauffer comes into play. He has recognized the correlation between emotional brain responses and behaviors long before he ever learned about Jaak Panksepp. His methods are built on a combination of the ABC Model (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence), ABA and Classical and Operant Conditioning, while simultaneously tapping into the emotional realm of each individual dog. As Scott believes that all dogs, regardless of previously displayed behaviors, benefit from touch and play, learning about Jaak Panksepp’s work and Jaak’s focus on the PLAY SYSTEM was quite validating of his own theories and experiences.

Now that there is scientific backing to Scott’s already successful methods, Scott would like to raise awareness to the importance of canine emotions and bridge the divide between the methodology of Behaviorism and the taboo-subject of the dog’s mind, nudging the dog industry in a direction that accepts all areas of science.

Considering Scott’s successful emotional communications with the dogs in his care, I know for a fact that the exclusion of canine emotions in behavior shaping is not only unjust but also a disservice to Man’s best Friend and our dog-human relationships.

Scott on PLAY and other natural stress relievers

Scott Stauffer: “Yes, dogs’ behaviors are predictable. You can graph them. You can log them. You can use Applied Behavior Analysis. You can use ABCs (Antecedents, Behavior and Consequence). But you also have to look at what they are trying to tell you. You gotta understand how the body works together. In order for you to see a behavior, the brain has to take in the information quicker than you realize. Emotions come up … 7 core emotions … 1. SEEK, 2. PLAY, 3. LUST, 4. FEAR, 5. PANIC/ GRIEF, 6. CARE and 7. RAGE. And those are all primal, through all mammals. …. You have to be able to recognize, before a behavior happens, how the brain works. The brain starts everything. The brain controls everything. We just worry about the outcomes. I’m not worried about the outcomes. I am worried about them having fun. And actually SEEKING. Actually, PLAY helps animals want to learn and listen. So, why don’t we use it more? I do!”

Affective Dog Behavior

Affective Dog Behavior is not a term that already exists. I made it up just for this blog post. Affective addresses emotions, Behavior excludes emotions, and caught in the middle is the Dog. So, why not term it Affective Dog Behavior?

Emotions drive behaviors. Nobody is advocating that we should just ditch everything we already know about canine learning. The majority of dogs do really well when we separate emotions and behaviors. But we could do so much better, build much better relationships, gain trust quicker, bridge the inter-species divide a lot easier, if we would find ways to incorporate ALL of what makes us and our dogs work: sensory, body AND mind. Just because we do not fully understand one shouldn’t make us exclude it, it should make us more curious, it should make us want to explore. As Jaak Panksepp said: Emotions are the tools that tell animals what’s important for survival inside the brain. Emotional communication is the most important form of communication. The whole body works in unison … it’s like a well-oiled machine. Imagine what would happen, if you would remove the transmission from your vehicle just because you can’t look insidw and you do not understand how it works. The same is true with the mind.

So, if anybody is interested in this new concept and wants to come up with a term that better describes Affective Dog Behavior, go right ahead. Let’s work on this together … change the way we think of our dogs for good. There is still so much work to be done in this field … so much potential to combine ALL science and learn to understand our closest friend, the dog, better. To HELP the dog. To help OURSELVES!

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