Making the case for evolution
On the evolutionary timeline within the lower limbic system, the SEEKING System came first, which only makes sense considering that dopamine is crucial to seeking resources and therefore to life itself.
What is SEEKING?
We hear a lot about activating SEEKING in the dog training world. What do YOU think SEEKING means?
Simply put, SEEKING is the emotional term behind the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It urges us to pursue whatever it is we need, want or enjoy. SEEKING, like any other raw affect/emotion, should not be mistaken for the behaviors that are triggered by the emotion, rather it is the urge to engage in said behaviors. And thus, SEEKING drives us to behave in ways that lead to something beneficial, be it food or drink, safety or shelter, a solution to a problem, fun, a mate, comfort and CARE, to name just a few. Anticipation, motivation, expectation and exploration are all characteristics of the SEEKING System.
There is a cycle to the whole dopamine release, which is made up of the appetitive phase and the consummatory phase. During the appetitive phase, dopamine release is highest, while it slows during consummation only to increase again right after. However, the brain is quite capable of multitasking and can anticipate good things even during consummation, in which case dopamine release may not decline.
The interesting thing to understand about SEEKING is that it never stops. As mentioned above, without SEEKING, life wouldn't be possible. Even though the SEEKING System is located in the lower part of the limbic system, it is incredibly powerful with its dopamine pathways
reaching not only other emotional systems where SEEKING is very much involved in keeping the animal on a path of survival or leading it back to it
but also extending upwards where it helps promote learning and the building of memories and even further up into the cortical brain to support reasoning and thinking.
SEEKING and dogs
So, back to the question of activating SEEKING in dogs. Since SEEKING never stops, it is not something that needs to be activated. However, we can manipulate the SEEKING System, and we do it all the time ... either by increasing arousal (increase dopamine release) or by rewarding for calmness (to decrease dopamine release). Here is a word of caution, though: while excessively low dopamine levels are linked to depression, excessively high levels are linked to manic behaviors, such as OCD, ADHD, even schizophrenia (in humans). And so it is best to always keep in mind that every time we manipulate behaviors, we also manipulate dopamine levels. Though many things can cause a rapid spike in dopamine, the best way to slow down the release of dopamine is when the dog goes into a satisfying consummatory phase. (Note: the term consummation is neither linked to food nor to the "consummation of marriage"; it is simply the terminology used in Affective Neuroscience to indicate a state of "achievement", "execution", "fulfillment", etc.)
Some of the most common ways to spike dopamine release are:
creating a routine or habit - dopamine is very susceptible to scheduled intervals
excessive use of high-value treats - this increases anticipation and expectation
the use of puzzle feeders (or similar feeding practices) - this causes dopamine levels to fluctuate rather than slow during feeding
one's own elevated level of excitement - indeed, it is contagious
Learning about SEEKING can definitely help us become more tolerant of our dog's overzealous excitement levels, as it explains so much about our dog's behaviors.
The less excessive our "training techniques", the better a dog's brain can regulate the release of dopamine naturally and in ways that do not lead to behavioral issues or worse yet, mental illness!