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Cognition Versus Emotion

While many of my posts are prompted by experiences with my own dogs or others, this one started with a sentence from my latest (not yet published) book:

“It is extremely difficult to be cognitively aware while feeling emotionally out of control.”

It’s such a simple concept, and yet it is missing from many behavior protocols. I often see owners and sometimes even trainers who are working with a dog who is emotionally over threshold, whether the dog is fearful, fear-reactive, or truly aggressive, expecting the dog to respond to verbal cues. Think about the last time you experienced an overwhelming emotion. I can remember all too easily when my dog Mojo died and how I felt. Had you asked me to complete even the simplest task during that initial intense period of mourning, I couldn’t have done it. And yet, we get upset with our dogs for ignoring us when in reality they are in such emotional turmoil that they are unable to process what we’re saying.

Even worse is expecting a dog to learn a new skill when he is emotionally distressed. I don’t mean that while a dog is lunging at another dog someone is trying to teach him to sit. I’m referring to the type of scenario I’ve observed in some group classes, for example. I have seen way too many dogs in a group situation become stressed to the point that they can’t pay attention to anything the owner is saying. And in some classes when the dog doesn’t comply, he is jerked or otherwise punished for “not paying attention,” which only adds to the stress.

Even if a dog isn’t physically corrected, all too often the emotional distress goes unrecognized and the owner presses on, becoming louder and harsher in trying to get their dog to comply.

Just like us, dogs need to be in a calm state of mind in order to pay attention and to learn new skills. Learning to recognize even the subtlest stress signals in our dogs will allow us to modify training sessions or behavior protocols, which will set our dogs up to be successful. __________________________________________________ You can find my books, blog, seminars (DVD/streaming) on

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