Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, ooooooooh…
And I’m feelin’ good.
Backstory: In a recent post I discussed the implications and far reaching effects of fear . This post will be about the first tool that I recommend when helping pets and their people to effectively cope with stress and fear.
The Chemical of Feeling Good
Feeling Good is what everyone strives for. Whether it’s that much needed hug, a glass of wine, mediation, a pay raise, play, or the touch of a lover or loved one, we want and need to feel good. Animals need to feel good too. And they will behave and respond to their environment in ways that enable them to feel good, or at the very least, feel better.
Thankfully there are chemicals at work that help both people and animals to feel better.
One of these is Dopamine.
“It’s like one of those scenes from a feel-good Hollywood movie. Where everybody is happy and nobody’s hair fizzes in the wind. Where it doesn’t rain, your shoes stay comfortable all day, and everybody’s jokes are funny.” ― Randa Abdel-Fattah
Dopamine is a chemical in the body. It’s one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in humans and animals. Dopamine helps regulate movement and emotional responses, It also enables one not only to seek out rewards, but to take action to move toward rewards.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses.
The chemical Dopamine helps to regulate:
-behavior and cognition
-inhibition of prolactin production
A single molecule in the brain can do all of this! Dopamine Is Powerful.
But so is food.
Needed Nutrients from Food
Animal Behavior (including people) is regulated by neurotransmitters and hormones. These substances have precursors – chemical compounds that precede them in metabolic pathways. For example, Tryptophan, is the precursor of serotonin (a neurotransmitter).
If we can make these precursors more or less available we can alter behavior.
One example is the presence (or absence) of Tryptophan in canines. Scientists believe that this may affect both aggression and stress resistance in dogs. Tyrosine is a precursor of catecholamines; hormones produced by the adrenal gland. These may also affect aggression and stress resistance. You can read more about that here.
The nutrition (or lack thereof) that we provide our animal companions affects not only their body, but also their mind, which in turn affects behavior.
The right kind of food can literally change an animal’s brain chemistry. This is an important first step in everything from training basic behaviors to addressing aggression.
Food has the power to not only enhance a dog’s ability to learn but also to help a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or move towards the food reward.
Using Food to Feel Better
We all know to feed our pets when they are hungry. And most people feed their pets in the morning and night. But what if there was another, better, more effective way to feed them?
What if we fed our pets throughout the day (or night) when they need to feel better?
What if we used food to help them feel better in challenging situations?
What if we used food when they were afraid?
What if food could be a tool you could use to reduce their stress?
What if food appeared when that frightening fox dashes past the window?
What if food was present when you took him to the veterinary’s office?
What if it rained food when she is frustrated, confused, scared, or reactive?
What if food you knew that food was this powerful?
What if you knew you could wield this power to help them to FEEL GOOD?!
Food is that powerful. This is how we should use their food.
The Power of Food
Food can increase the level of dopamine in the brain! This is why we recommended using FOOD when training, modifying behavior, and when we need to minimize an animal’s stress, fear, aggression, and anxiety. If an animal is offered food before reaching a high stress level, while in the presence of a stimulus that frightens or triggers her, a positive emotional response occurs.
FOOD IS A TOOL.
Food is not a bribe. We are not teasing, luring, or bribing an animal to get them to do what we want. When we are using the right kind food, there are actual chemical reactions taking place in the brain and the body! Here is some of what is happening when food is used as a tool.
- When you present a highly desirable food option to an animal you turn on the animal’s ‘seeker system.’ This dials down the emotion of fear.
- Instead of feeling fear the brain begins to be overcome with the pleasurable feelings that food provides to an animal.
- It also allows the animal to have a greater ability to focus on the good-feeling sensation and less on the negative emotion (fear, frustration, stress, anxiety, etc.)
- This enhances an animals positive, focused attentiveness
- In turn, it allows the animals to shift into a calmer state in their mind and body.
- In this calmer, more relaxed state, learning and behavior modification can occur.
When To Use Food
Visits to the vet. Walks in the park. Unexpected Visitors. Using the vacuum. Bringing a new baby into the home. New people in your apartment. Getting into the cat carrier. Moving. Staying in a hotel. You name it; there needs to be high value food involved.
I honestly cannot think of when food would not be appropriate to use when working with an animal of any species. Whether you are working with a crocodile to station politely and practice self-restraint, or you are asking a cat to station on her cat tower instead of the counter, food is at the heart of it all. One of my favorite opportunities to use food is at the vet’s office. Whether we are at the cat specialist for King Albert’s acupuncture, or we are at the veterinarian waiting room for Hocus’ annual exam, you can bet that I have food on me.
Food should be used during any kind of family transition, or any situation that your animal companion finds challenging. Food should be used in any situation where your pet might experience anxiety, stress, fear, and even aggression. Yes, you read that correctly. Food can (and should) be used to help a pig, parrot, cat, rat, horse, dog if they are struggling with a variety of behavioral issues.
Anxiety, aggression, frustration, and fear can be managed safely and positively by using food as a tool. Food can increase one’s focus, their attention, their mood, and more! Food can change a crazed canine into a cool canine. Food can change a fearful feline into a confident kitty. Food can help a bird to not be so bashful. Food is powerful. And we are not using it enough.
Food to Use
When use are choosing what food to use, think High-Value and practical. If you are feeding your pet a high-grade pet food, sometimes this can be used as a behavior modification tool. We feed Hocus Pocus the Cadillac of canine food, so she goes bonkers for her kibble! The cats never get dry food these days, so when I break out the grain-free cat kibble they lose their minds! These are the kind of food responses you want from your pet when you are using food. If you aren’t sure if your dog or cat’s dry food will make the cut, you will need to experiment with foods that your pet will go nuts for. Some good foods to begin with are turkey, bacon, cheese, hot dogs, fish. etc. -anything they don’t normally receive, or anything they are super psyched to get!
One of my favorite on-the-go-food-treats is Stella and Chewies. These don’t crumble, and are not greasy. And the end goal is met: they are irresistible to the animals.
Pay me in food, human!
Studies have shown that dogs don’t want petting or soothing words as much as they prefer a primary reinforcer (food). They prefer petting over soothing words, and they prefer food over petting! I have found this to be true for cats as well. And for parrots and reptiles as well.
So where’s the beef ? It needs to be used.
Food is a primary reinforcer for our pets! Primary reinforcers are biological. Food, drink, and pleasure are the principal examples of primary reinforcers. We can use food as a tool with regards to its importance to an animal.
Using food as a tool is not hard, people. It can be very easy. Rather than dumping all the food in a boring bowl (ahem, we have talked about this before), it’s better to keep high-value treats (and food that they LOVE) handy. This food should be hand around the home, convenient in your car, and easily pluck-able from your purse or pocket.
Here’s Why: You never know when fear might strike.
Here’s How: Make it Rain Treats! Rain those goodies down when and wherever something frightening, startling, or scary happens. (Even if you don’t think the person, place, or event was scary, your pet does), so make it rain, baby. Rain down the treats!
If you are unfamiliar with food as a tool, you can see how we use food in these videos:
- Low Stress Vet Visits!
- Calming a Senior Cat Before and During Acupuncture
- Stress Free Vet Visits – Part 1 (the Dreaded Wait in The Lobby)
- Ensuring Safe and Polite Greetings with Strangers at The Front Door
- Safe Space Cape Time at the Coffee Place
- Thunderstorm Treat PAWty
The Dope Rewards
Let’s get back to Dopeamine for a minute. Dopamine is considered a “reward” chemical. When we are using food, we are able to increase the level of dopamine in the animal’s brain. What we as humans, call rewards, are often things that are unexpectedly good. Let’s say for example, you run into an old, favorite pal, or your boss surprises you with a pay raise. Or maybe your spouse takes you on a romantic vacation. These unexpected events lead to positive prediction errors, and increases in dopamine.
As cool as that is, there is more to the dope, hip chemical called Dopamine. More and more studies are showing that this neurotransmitter is not responsible for pleasure per say, but it has more to do with motivation.
Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself. – Salamone, a UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor,
Researchers have found that in animals, dopamine levels can actually spike after stress! This could be something such as losing a fight with another animal, or seeing a predator outside the window. Humans also experience a spike in dopamine after stressful encounters. Soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder also show activity in dopamine-rich parts of the brain when hearing recorded gunshots and other combat sounds.
So what’s with dopeamine coming out during negative experiences?
One researcher believes he has found the reason. A scientist was able to artificially raise (or lower) dopamine levels in animals. Then he gave them a choice between two rewards with a different value, which could be obtained through different amounts of work. For example, he wanted to see what a rat would do when given an easy or difficult choice. On one end of a corridor he place a pile of food. On the other end there was a pile of food twice as big, but this end has a small fence that the rat had to jump over to get the food.
The results are fascinating!
Animals with lowered levels of dopamine almost always choose the easier, low-value reward. But the animals with normal levels of dopamine didn’t mind exerting more energy and effort to jump the fence to receive the high-value reward. (I know many species of animals and people who behave the same way!) Other studies in depressed human patients have corroborated these results.
The scientist who did the study believes, “This lack of perceived energy is maladaptive, because it reduces the tendency to interact with the environment. But, it could also reflect the body’s attempt to save energy in a crisis.”
I found that study fascinating and helpful. If motivation is directly related to dopeamine, and food can increase the level of dopeamine, then why are we not using food more often? Why is food not front and center and at the heart of any training or behavior modification program? Why are we as animal guardians not using food as a tool with our pets?
Maybe today you will. Maybe one day we all will.
I have hope for us all!
More To Come!
This is part three of a four part series about how to help you and your pets cope with grace and ease during times of stress or Big Family Changes. Stay tuned for the next post.
But in the meantime, Get Some High High-Value Food … And Don’t Leave Home Without It!
Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River runnin’ free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I’m feelin’ good