Changing Behaviour From A Neurobiological Perspective

After the phenomenal success and interest in the online seminar on the Introduction to the Neuroscience of Behaviour

I wondered if you might like me to share some of my current thoughts on this fascinating subject.

Firstly, I would like to keep this VERY simple and secondly, I would like to help people think about behaviour modification as a construct that is not necessarily a one size fits all perspective and finally, I am not going to deliberate the quadrants of behaviour. Quite frankly, I think we have all had enough! I believe modifying behaviour requires a little more consideration of the emotional set point of the animal and this should be individually tailored to suit each individual case.

Here is why:

The emotional set point for each animal is totally unique, there are similarities in breed lines, shapes, sizes etc but the actual animal is always different. The concept of similarity in itself is a perception of the individual making the conclusion. As we grow, our experiences, environment, health, diet, exercise etc actually changes our DNA.

This is called Epigenetics and it looks at how DNA is changed through various factors and once changed can be transferred down blood lines and is part of the natural selection and evolution of any species (although with dogs, we do all of the manipulations- a topic, not for here). There has been a recent study on Belgian Mallinois who have a gene responsible for aggressive tendencies. It was suggested in this study that aversive punishment methods actually caused this gene to be expressed and now this gene is detected through genetic testing so we have recognised that aversives change DNA and now we can select against it. Interesting!

Early experiences:

The right kind of early experiences are essential for any animal to be able to enable him to cope in his environment. If you do not expose your dog, or even your human children to many different social settings, people, noises, situations etc and give him the right information about how to behave in that setting, the feedback he will get from that setting might not be a great learning experience if it happens later on especially if he does not have any foundations. There is a certain amount of learning, habituation, desensitization etc that is imperative for the animal to develop output behaviours that are not disproportionate to the situation. Essentially, unwanted behaviour is disproportionate to the situation. This happens when the animal is not listened too, understood, forced to do something he does not want to, is punished, made to feel frightened, is prevented from making his own choice, is frustrated or their is inconsistency in the feedback.

So, what am I talking about? Brains are formed at birth. The first few years, or weeks (depending on the animal) are all about forming the connections between the neurons. These look like spiders and they grow in relation to new experiences. The concept of this growing is called neurogenesis and it has been shown to be a physically measurable attribute to the learning process. This happens in an area of the brain called the Hippocampus, the area responsible for working memory and the conversion of short to long term memory.. Basically, it stores the information we need right now, so we can learn to adapt to our environment and survive!  This neurogenesis is reliant on the nerve impulse process and it is a much debatable and interesting area of neuroscience. So, how does this happen? We have an experience, lets say we touch a hot plate with our finger (your sensory nerve fibers on your fingers). This activates something called an action potential (think of this a little bit like turning on the nerve signal and sending it to the brain). This travels up the spinal chord to the brain.  The brain then sends a signal back via Motor fibers and this stimulates the appropriate muscles to move your hand away from the hot plate. This is what I frequently term as output behaviour. Now, output behaviour that is seen in various different arousing situations is still very much under debate within the canine behaviour world, but this will be the subject of my next seminar (with more usable language, I promise) and my aim is to explain what it means for the animal when you see things such as: Head turning, lip licking, yawning, conflict behaviours, blinking, sniffing, vocalisation and even expulsion (vomiting, urination etc) & how they benefit the organism to maintain homeostasis (a state of dynamic equilibrium) aka how these behaviours effect the internal system to help maintain some coping mechanism for the animal. I want to be able to bring an explanation of the emotional, electrical and neurological system to you, to help you. Already have plenty of research papers so am hoping that will be the project for the next month or so. Wish me luck!

N.B Learning that happens at the time of an emotional response is far more likely to be recalled/remember. For example, if there was a severe burn on the finger, this might be enough for the animal to never approach fire again. Please note, there is a latency (delay) in the processing of this information and this has been suggested to be an explanation for the conversion from short to longer term memory, but, this is a measurable thing. It might even be some kind of FACT?? NO! I digress…

Stress is a huge factor in animals and humans and this is what we are trying to deal with in behaviour modification. The right learning can help any animal have the right chance, but what do you do when things go wrong? When they have no real plasticity (or possibilities for major neuronal changes) aka they are older or too stressed. Connections can be formed throughout an animals life as they live and learn and if an animal has been able to practice a behaviour (that it is finding effective, but perhaps it is harming another animal or is undesirable in some way), not allowing that behaviour to occur really should be the first step in getting that behaviour modified. They call this a management program or an antecedent arrangement. Think of it as a little holiday from stress,for the animal 🙂

Then we do not expose them in any way shape or form to these triggers. I see this “break period” as a kind of stress holiday and I think it is very important to give a huge amount of time for the animal (us too) to get used to coping without triggers. I believe there is a latency in unlearning too!

If an animal is reacting to too many triggers all of the time this is a highly undesirable situation for any therapist to treat and sometimes ends in the best decision possible being made for the animal. This is when things go too far and if earlier signs are not dealt with this leads to an animal that is operating entirely in fight/flight mode. This is the sympathetic nerve system in over drive. This is the stress producing system and it is dangerous for any animal and it is just exhausting for everyone involved.

So, what can you do? Certainly, one of the best ways is to alter behaviour through techniques that are stress reducing and at the same time teach an alternative default or non-compatible behaviour. This is carried out in many different settings with increasing context and because this is highly reinforced, practiced, relaxed and it becomes a preferrred behaviour it teaches the animal a great way to cope in the presence of his triggers. Please note: exposure to triggers has to be gradual, carried out with a professional and appropriately diagnosed!!!!!!!!

Remember, to do this, you must make sure the animal is relaxed, happy, is wearing comfortable equipment (such as the perfect fit harness by Dog Games Ltd)  and you have properly assessed the arousal and what it means to the animal!

There is context in all learning and one strategy that I am particularly keen to work around is context in things like food aggression. I believe there is an opportunity to reduce all of the context and then work forwards from there (more about that later). The evidence for contextual sensory learning looks very interesting from a neurobiological stand point. Lets see what happens.

What else? I wanted to try and explain how this works in terms of turning off the neurons that are responsible for undesirable behaviour outputs in the context of certain situations. What?

Please see following diagram courtesy of which highlights electrical signalling, synapse and cell body.

Please note: Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers transported across synapses to the post synaptic neuron. They carry the signal in chemical form. We will go into detail about these later.

courtesy of helcohi dot com activity nervous energy

A nerve impulse transmission that is turned on to the point of  it reaching the desired brain region maintains the output behaviour by its very usage. This is a very relaxed way of explaining something called Long term Potentiation LTP.  This just means that the synapses are kept going through usage (again, this is a very loose hypothesis- look up Hebbian if you want to read further). So, through usage, you get cell renewal and DNA replication to maintain this connection throughout the body (basically neurogenesis). So, behaviour remains strong if the synapses are kept strong. Hope that makes sense?!

Then you get something else and I wondered if this was the basis for what people often term sub-threshold exposure to triggers, because it is this that I am particularly interested in. This is something called Long Term depression LTD (this is not depression in the clinical sense). This means that the nerve impulse does not quite reach its turning on potential and not enough to get to its target area (this is called sub-threshold action potential). This means that the post synapse does not receive its information and it does not drive the output (motor) behaviour response (or behaviour output). What happens here? Well, if it does not fire, it does not get used, it does not replicated its DNA and it does not continue. This, in my mind is the basis of behaviour modification and even though I have explained it in very broad terms. I think forms the basis for measurable output behaviours and we can use brain imaging to show how some behaviour modification techniques (when operated in a lower stress environment) can contribute to us learning great alternative, low stress behaviours.

So, with many repetitions, in many contexts with great stress free foundations we can at least teach the animal how to cope better with things its not particularly happy around. This means it can form new neuronal connections, which would result in a more favorable behaviour output.

Ideally we need to do this as early as possible with any animal because the more formed these axons get, the less plasticity we have. Once unwanted pathways are trodden (some animals are hard wired with these which means they are more predisposed) they take much time, effort and understanding to modify.

Our puppy course targets anyone who is interested in preventing unwanted behaviour problems before they start.

We have training and habituations schedules, step-by-step instructions covering every aspect to help your dogs brain develop so that he can make the best decisions possible, in many different environments, from the word go!!!

We also help you to understand how to train your dog so you have the right foundations.  You are assessed at the end of the 8 week course. You simply upload a video to show your training in many different contexts, plus, your training and habituation schedule. Then you get your certificate!!!!

It is currently at the introductory price of just £1. We aim to provide high quality affordable information to anyone interested in giving their animal the right start.

Your feedback is important to us:

Thanks for listening.