The Emotional Model of Behavior Change

Jul 27, 2021 |

An emotional model of maximizing mutual happiness starts with the assumption that emotionally happy beings tend to behave in a way that is palatable.

Humans have opinions about behavior.  We have clear ideas about which behaviors are good and which are bad. In a nutshell, if we benefit from the behavior of another, then it’s good behavior. And if it inconveniences us in any way? Then it’s bad behavior.

Our focus is on how the behavior of others affects us. How it makes us feel.

Obviously, our dogs are not immune. If they do something and it makes us feel good? It’s a good behavior. If they do something and it makes us feel bad? It’s a bad one.

When our dog runs around the house barking hysterically, it affects us  negatively.  We are irritated!  We are frustrated! Therefore the dog’s behavior is bad.

Okay. Now before we set about setting up a plan to change that behavior, let’s take one more step. How about the dog’s point of view?  How is the dog feeling?

When we keep them in the house, devoid of interesting things to do besides what is happening outside the window, they are bored! Therefore, from the dog’s point of view, our human behavior is bad –  we trap them in a dull space and expect them to self entertain in ways that we find palatable.

And I would imagine that when we finally recognize their need to do something and get them out for a leash walk, creeping down the street at the unimpressive pace of 3 mph, our dogs have opinions about that too. Our slow-paced affects them negatively and they are frustrated!

BUT when my over aroused leashed-dog jerks me along as a result of their excitement about finally doing something, desperate to GO and SEE, I’m not happy either!

Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Maybe we just think about behavior all wrong. Maybe we need to stop thinking about getting behavior and start striving for getting our needs met. Everyone’s needs, not just the humans.

If we take this a bit further, we can quickly see that it’s actually in our best interest to ensure that everyone’s needs are met, because good behavior naturally flows from both sides when everyone is happy. Indeed, soon you will find yourself with a lovely spiral.   Dog not jerking you around on his leash-walk because you have found a way for him to move faster, satisfying his need to move? Awesome!  Now you’ll take him out of the house more often. Dog gets out of the house more and is more fulfilled? Excellent! They are more likely to rest when they are in the house rather than running from window to window wrecking havoc with your peace and quiet.

Speaking of peace and quiet and getting everyone’s needs met….

I need my house to be quiet when I am teaching a webinar.   Dogs running around hysterically do not meet my needs, nor the needs of my on-line webinar clients.

My dogs react to things happening outside the windows, and those happenings makes them bark! That’s because they are dogs and they have a need to react to changes in the environment!  Heck, for hundreds of years we bred dogs to let us know if something was happening. Now we don’t like it. Except when we do – like when the bad guy shows up. Complicated much?

So I need quiet and my dogs need to respond to external stimulation. What is the solution?

I can crate my dogs during webinars. That solves my problem, and by blocking their awareness of external stimuli, that should naturally cause the barking to go down.

So. Who’s happy here when I crate my dogs?

For sure, me! I’ve had my needs met. But have the dogs had their needs met? If my dogs prefer to be free in the house, and now I crate them, is there anything I can do to make this a more winning situation for the dogs? A win for both of us?  Keep in mind that I rarely crate my dogs at home, so this is not a natural part of their daily repertoire.

There’s a solution.

How about if I train my dogs that their crates are really fantastic places? How about if I give my dogs special treats when they go in their crates, and those treats only show up at those times?

And since this is not actually a hypothetical scenario, I really did have this particular situation, that is exactly what I did.

So now when I teach a webinar, my dogs are crated with their very special treat.  In this way, not only do I get my needs met, but my dogs got their needs met. The total amount of happiness in my house just went up on both sides!

How does this vary from a more traditional model of changing behavior?

An emotional model of maximizing mutual happiness starts with the assumption that emotionally happy beings tend to behave in a way that is palatable to those around them.  Neither the dog nor the handler is the focus here; the overall happiness of the team is the focal point. That means sometimes one member of the team might be a little happier and the other a little less happy. And other times that might be reversed. And if you get super lucky? You can hit on a solution that increases the overall happiness of both halves of the team, such as my description above with my webinar problem and get a fantastic result that makes everyone feel good.

I believe that this way of thinking causes us to be more creative. Rather than us making assumptions about the problem behavior and how we are going to fix it, we start by making assumptions about our mutual desire to live together in happiness – and focus on increasing that element for everyone. Win-win scenarios do exist, but you have to look for them.

If you have a problem that is creating emotional unhappiness in you or your dog or both of you, then maybe give this a try. What are your needs? Why are your dog’s needs? Can you think of a solution that increases the grand total happiness in the house? Remember – for each challenge, make sure you consider both sides – the goal is greater total happiness!

This is exactly the same thing I’m doing with my circling method of loose leash walking.  What is the dog’s need? To move! What is my need? Not to get dragged!   Can I increase the mutual happiness of the walk for everyone by making a few changes? Yes!

But in order for that to work, I have to stop focusing on the dog pulling and start focusing on the underlying reason for the pulling –  I need to take responsibility for the fact that I don’t walk fast enough! But that doesn’t mean I’m going to start running because while that might make my dog happy it’s not going to make me happy.

See? We both matter.  We can both win.  What’s not to love?

In regards to reactivity and general over arousal, there are questions to ask…what emotions is the dog expressing when behaving in a reactive or over aroused manner?  How does that make me feel?  What can I do to change the dog’s emotional reactions?  And…do those changes work for me?  Are they palatable? How about for my dog – do they work for my dog and are they palatable?  Because if not – then it’s not a workable solution.

Good behavior naturally results from dog-handler teams when everyone’s needs are met. Of course, training to address specific behaviors will often play a role in this, but that is not the focus of today’s blog.  Today I’m thinking about the bigger picture.

Give it a try – if you find something interesting that is working for you, feel free to make comment about what you did!

And on another note, I wrote a book some time ago that addresses behavior in this fashion.  If you’re interested, look for Beyond the Basics; Unlock Your Dog’s Behavior.

Image credit comes from In High Drive - Photography in Motion. You can check out Jennifer's work at her website: