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Cognitive health and behaviour

Cognitive health and behaviour

Cecilie Hemsen Berg

Cognitive health refers to the health of our dog’s physical brain as well as their mind. Their cognitive health is affected by diet, training, age, environment, breed and genetics. Your dog’s hedonic budget will give you an overview of how daily activities impact your dog’s mental health and well-being. Your dog will behave in accordance with their cognitive health, which means good cognitive health results in good behaviour. But how do we promote good cognitive health and in turn wanted behaviour?

cognitive health and training

Based on discussions with animal behaviourist Lucille Hepburn from Holistic Animal Behavior in Hout Bay. Lucille is certified through COAPE. Her motto is “Set your dog and yourself up for success. When we know better, we do better”. She focuses on activating the positive cognitive system to reinforce constructive and good behaviour. As dog parents, it is our responsibility to understand, motivate and strengthen what releases our dogs’ good feelings and wanted behaviour.

Cognitive health refers to the health of our dog’s physical brain as well as their mind. Their cognitive health is affected by diet, training, age, environment, breed and genetics. Your dog’s hedonic budget will give you an overview of how daily activities impact your dog’s mental health and well-being. Your dog will behave in accordance with their cognitive health, which means good cognitive health results in good behaviour. But how do we promote good cognitive health and in turn wanted behaviour?

Emotional arousal and behavioural issues

The question of cognitive and mental health often arises when we see behavioural issues in our dogs. Dogs will display high emotions such as hyperactivity, aggression, fear and excitement when they are exposed to their triggers. Arousal affects how positive and negative events are processed and the resulting emotion. 

cognitive health and training

Some dogs may get very aroused/excited at the sight of other dogs on walks, others may get aroused when they see a squirrel, and some may get too aroused during playtime with their human friend. If arousal levels are so high that the dog is unable to stay calm, it will interfere with his ability to think clearly, resulting in unwanted behaviour. Your dog may display inappropriate levels of arousal in situations if they have not been adequately socialized and trained, their Hedonic Budget is not fulfilled or they have had previously bad experiences. 

“Dogs are emotional beings, motivated by pleasure, enjoyment and fun”.

Lucille Hepburn

The interaction between emotional health, physical health and expression of problem behaviours is complex. Panksepp’s affective systems are the most common approach to studying emotions in animals. He outlines 4 positive and 4 negative affective systems, which influence behaviours. We want to promote the positive systems to ensure healthy and balanced responses and reduce the negative systems as these result in undesired and unpredictable behaviour.

cognitive health and training

The positive systems

  1. Desire-seeking 
  2. Social-play 
  3. Care 
  4. Lust 

The negative systems

  1. Fear-anxiety 
  2. Rage 
  3. Panic-grief  
  4. Pain 

The dog’s breed and cognitive health

Every dog is unique but also displays personalities according to type and breed. The first step is to make sure that you are choosing a breed that harmonizes with your personality and lifestyle. When your dog receives what he or she needs to have an emotionally fulfilling life, you will help prevent behavioural and mental problems. 

Some signs of an unfulfilled lifestyle include aggression, hyperactivity, destructive behaviour and excessive licking. Inappropriate emotional responses/arousal also indicate unbalanced mental health. A dog whose needs are met and is stimulated with activities suitable for their breed and personality will be well-balanced, calm and happy.

The dog’s personality is influenced by various factors, including their breed/mix of breeds, socialization both from the breeder and you and genetics. Some dogs are more motivated to be trained, others enjoy scent work and some need to be very physically active.

American Kennel Club describes 7 different breed groups 

  1. Sporting group
  2. Herding group 
  3. Hound group
  4. Working group
  5. Terrier group
  6. Toy group
  7. Non-sporting group

Each one of these 7 groups needs slightly different approaches to training, exercise and play. 

cognitive health and training

Lucille is often faced with dogs who have been labelled “aggressive”, “hyperactive” or “untrainable”. More often than not the issue is the owner and not the dog. People tend to get dogs based on their appearance and not their personality. This can result in the dog not getting the exercise, training or play it needs to function properly, ending up as a misbehaved dog. Before labelling a dog with a behavioural issue, we need to ask what that dog’s day looks like. What activities does he/she do? What nutrition is he/she getting? Is his/her Hedonic Budget in balance? 

For example, a Border Collie is a herding dog that is bred to look after sheep. Traits that Border Collies are bred for include chasing, stalking and nipping to herd successfully. Border Collies need to be trained and exercised to use their herding abilities constructively, to avoid them nipping and chasing people.

The hedonistic budget

Balance the Hedonic Budget

The Hedonic Budget refers to all the activities your dog needs to do in a day to feel happy and content and the time allocated to these activities. Fulfilling these needs involves the positive systems in the brain (the cognitive) and hedonia is a state of pleasure or happiness. To achieve happiness and well-being, you want to make sure your dog has balance in their Hedonic Budget every day. One of the biggest mistakes we make is that we think physical exercise and food satisfy all our dogs’ needs. Having an unbalanced Hedonic Budget will lead to unwanted behaviour as dogs will get bored, under-stimulated and malnourished.

Our responsibility as dog parents is to promote emotional health and help our dog meet life with confidence and a positive outlook. When our dog is introduced to new situations, people or other animals the interaction must result in something good; an appropriate reward.

A Hedonic Budget divides up the dog’s day according to the time spent on various activities that contribute to a sense of well-being:

  • Exercise
  • Rest
  • Social contact with humans and other dogs 
  • Playtime 
  • Brainwork/enrichment
  • Food

By fulfilling the Hedonistic Budget you activate different systems in your dog’s brain. By activating these systems, hormones are released which impact your dog’s cognitive health. These 3 systems are:

cognitive health and training

The Seeking System

The seeking system is about novelty and investigating the environment. This releases dopamine, which reinforces the feeling of pleasure experienced when engaging in rewarding activities. To motivate your dog to seek, they require rewards such as treats, a favourite toy or praise. 

An example of a seeking game is simply scatter-feeding your dog on the lawn. This is done by throwing their kibble on the lawn and allowing your dog to sniff them out. Another way of stimulating the seeking system is to wrap treats in a blanket or hide some treats around the living room. 

The Care System

This system is activated through grooming, both self-grooming and mutual grooming. It is about the care and love you feel for your family and the love and care the family feels for you – which releases oxytocin. This can be activated by cuddling your dog, grooming them and being near. 

The Play System

Opioids and endorphins are released when your dog engages in play. This is the “feel good stuff” which also promotes memory and supports a healthy immune system. Play also promotes neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change and adapt due to experience. This is very important for cognitive health and behaviour.

Each dog will have different Hedonistic Budgets and this depends on both their breed and their individual personalities. Going back to the Border Collie, if he/she gets a lot of exercise, but no play or enrichment, they will develop behavioural issues like nipping at your feet etc. This is because their Hedonistic Budget is unbalanced and they are unsatisfied. It is important to remember that there can be a lot of individual variation within a breed.

Improve cognitive health for different life stages

a. Puppies and training 

When your dog is a puppy, this is the time when you can make the biggest impact on their behaviour. Up to the age of 12 weeks, they are fearless and in the right state of mind to have lots of positive experiences to build their confidence. You can read our blog on socialisation to learn more about this.

Puppy training classes are an important tool and will build confidence, provide mental stimulation and strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Training takes consistent practice, repetitions and lots of patience. The goal is to change a possible pessimistic bias by building the puppy’s confidence through problem-solving activities and appropriate behaviours. The goal is to improve the dog’s cognitive bias by adding to the Hedonic Budget until the dog realizes it can deal with life.

80% of the puppy’s brain is developed within the first 16 weeks. During puppy training, one of the first things we need to establish is your puppy’s cognitive bias – whether it is positive/optimistic or pessimistic. We also need to understand whether the puppy has a high or low arousal. How does the dog approach something new, e.g. a new toy? 

If the cognitive bias is more towards being pessimistic, he will feel anxious and leave. If the dog is more optimistic, he will be curious and start playing with the toy. Depending on the cognitive bias, we can create a behavioural program based on The Hedonic Budget ensuring that your puppy gets a balanced amount of exercise, play and brain work in addition to the appropriate care and diet.

b. Adolescence and training

The adolescent phase is between 8 – 18 months, which calls for adjusted socializing and training for this life stage. During this phase, your dog will go through a hormonal change, and teething is more or less finished. You may also notice that your dog suddenly becomes scared of things or situations that he previously had no issue with. This is normal, and it is important to continue your training sessions according to The Hedonic Budget. 

cognitive health and training

For example, if you have an anxious dog and all you do is take it for a run every day, you will end up having a fit, anxious dog. Your dog might develop stereotypical behavioural OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). This would easily be resolved if The Hedonic Budget was in balance. One could include moderate agility exercise and brain-work.

c. Adult dogs and training

Fulfilling your dog’s needs is equally important for your adult dog. A dog left for 10-12 hours a day with zero stimulation will be bored out of his mind. Bored dogs tend to look for ways to entertain themselves, and chewing is one option. 

10 minutes of brain work will tire our dog far more than 1 hour of exercise. Brain work stimulates problem-solving, which can be something as simple as putting a treat in the toilet core, hiding it in the garden and telling your dog to find it. You can also roll up treats in an old towel and let your dog sniff and scratch to find the treats. Another option is to fill a Kong with a mixture of liver pate, plain yoghurt and kibble, freeze it and give it to your dog. 

cognitive health and training

A Border Collie would love to have a toy with lids where you hide the treats and she has to figure out how to lift the lids to get out the treats. Treats like achilles tendons can be nice for dogs, like pit bulls, where chewing is important. Other ideas are chase and fetch games, on-lead exercises and forage and sniff.

Doing simple things like teaching your dog to climb on or in a box, walk through a hoop or stick their head into something to get food builds their confidence and helps them to approach new situations with an expectation that they are likely to produce something good for them, rather than something bad.

d. Senior dogs and training

From the age of about 7 years, it is time for our dog to enjoy their retirement. Their cognitive ability might slow down, which affects many aspects of their lives. This is a time when maintaining good cognitive health is important. Some older dogs can become more anxious, confused or irritable due to loss of smell, sight and memory. Older dogs can also become incontinent, and develop similar symptoms as Alzheimer’s. 

Exercise – Physical exercise has been proven to not only help keep our dog physically healthy, but it will also benefit brain health. It can also help grow brain cells. Adjust physical activities to fit your dogs’ health. Be mindful that their joints may be sore and adjust accordingly. Short walks in new areas are a great way to keep things interesting and stimulate the seeking system.

cognitive health and training

Brain work and play time – Play hide and seek with their favourite treat, toy or even you. Hide a treat under a cup and let them find it. Once your dog figures out how to knock over the cup you can introduce additional cups as decoys to increase the difficulty level. Playing fetch in the garden, a gentle tug-of-war game or freezing treats on a lick-mat are also great ways to activate the play and seeking system.

Want to learn more about the subject?

If you want to learn more about this important subject, Lucille recommends Karen Pienaar’s book “Mood Matters”. Karen has been working in the field of animal behaviour therapy since 1997. Her book is a must for every pet parent interested in understanding, preventing and successfully resolving unwanted behaviour in their companion animal.

We have also written a blog on cognitive health and nutrition if you want to learn how diet can affect your dog’s brain health.