Self Soothing & Cry It Out Are Neurologically Damaging Here Is Why

The mechanisms that occur when ANY animal feels stress or anxiety is conserved across the way the nervous system responds. We are looking at the limbic system and basically under the hat we are all the same (according to Panksepp et al) This is why we use Rat models to draw conclusions about human behaviour. Recent work by Greg Berns showed that canines have the brain area responsible for feeling emotions. The discovery that dogs have a caudate nucleus has many implications in training, welfare and the law.

The general advice old school trainers give with respect to a puppy or dog whining (and even children- although this is largely changed now thank goodness) is still very much centred around letting him cry and only going back to him when he is quiet. The kind of articles out there seem to have a similar message, such as, “We do not want him to control us with his crying”, “We do not want him thinking this behaviour works”, Some advise, “let him cry for a bit and then go to him if he really means it”.  When looking at the functional analysis of behaviour professionals want to work with what the function and motivation of the animal is to make changes so that needs are met but more appropriate solutions are adopted so that animals do not have to undergo too much stress.

Contrary to popular belief systems, dogs are not trying to manipulate you with their crying, they have not sat down and drawn up plans to try and control you so their every basic need is met. Surely, with the new evidence brought into the light, they have EVERY right to have their basic needs met. Afterall you make the decision to be in charge of this when you get a dog. Think how frightening it must be to place that amount of trust on someone (for them and YOU)? How scary would it be, to express yourself and get ignored? How do you feel when your needs are not met? What do you do?

It would seem that the “cry it out” mentality has its roots in hullaballoo research and has formed our basis of youngster rearing since the 1880’s (see Ferber, Weissbluth and Schafer if you want to read more)

Sometimes we do things, not because we know, but because that is what is popular and for some reason, this rather archaic methodology is still rife. You cannot help wondering if this attitude alone could be the reason why we have such an epidemic of separation anxiety (highlighted in recent media coverage) because quite frankly “crying it out” is stressful and by doing this we can create real, lasting permanent damage. We have developed a short course to help teach dogs that you return if your dog is experiencing some distress when you leave please see: 7 Day Separation Anxiety Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional). This is designed to help prevent things escalating. If you are having serious issues when you leave your animal it is vital that you call a certified behaviourist and seek veterinary advice.

There are many current articles on why some stress is good and to be honest, the more appropriate function that is related has more “seeking” or “drive” related  motivations. However, it is important that a solid foundation is put in place so that animals can be resilient against variations in their normal routine.

Basically, if something is motivating, bringing about a need to solve a problem and it is within the capabilities of the animal (but not too difficult and not too easy) then there will be an increase in dopamine (which is the neurotransmitter that works in seeking response behaviour patterns). Now, if that task is too difficult and the seeking behaviour increases and the animal does not get anywhere and the task becomes too difficult, then this starts to become stressful. Dopamine converts to cortisol and we all know that too much free cortisol is a bad thing for learning, immunity, behaviour responses, health and so on. So, the answer here, IS: it has to be interesting, engaging and it has to be achievable (see article Neural Mechanisms Of Resilience & Its Role In Dog Training).

Hormone response elements (HRE’s) that circulate during stress actually inhibit learning because they inhibit the transcription factors that relate to the production of protein molecules which are formed when learning occurs (a physical representation of how learning occurs). To understand the current evidence in neuroscience we have 2 online seminars which explain the neuroscience in more detail:  Introduction To the Science Of Behaviour (Beginners) Seminar & Introduction To the Neuroscience of Behaviour On-line Seminar (Degree level)

Some people still talk about this most unfortunate label “mollycoddling” (is that even a word?). Unfortunately, this stems from this outdated research methodology. We are not going to say any more about this, you can make up your own mind.

What we want, is to promote independence and problem solving to keep the animal driven and seeking (this is why training life skills is a great idea because it gives you synergistic cues that indicate what each of you would like out of the relationship, through choices). This breaks down the frustration barriers and is fundamental for letting the animal have control over his own outcomes (which have been shown to reduce stress, aggression and his needs are far more likely to be met etc). Please see our amazing 10 week puppy instructor course for dog training instructors  Puppy Training Classes Instructor Course For dog owners and enthusiasts we have the highly affordable guide which will set your puppy up to succeed with the right message and prevent behaviour problems later on 7 Day Puppy Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional).

So, when we talk about setting animals up to succeed, what do we mean?

  • We want to reduce stress
  • Increase free choice
  • Increase probability that safe, good decisions are made
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Arrange he environment so he is set up to make good choices

By ignoring vocalisations and/or stress signals for significant periods of time does not work. Here is why!

We have developed the following resources to help educate people about dogs. This now includes a kids free colouring and word quiz book & we have over 25 posters now, all available in PDF, JPG & PNG: Essential Training Resource Guide

Some posters in our resource guide:

John Watson in the 1920’s took quite a hard stance on using affection in infant rearing and emphasised something which he defined as “too much mother love”. This was a time when the science world was heavily dominated by men. Too much kindness was thought to give you a whiney, dependent child and this became popular protocol, with no evidence to back it up. Even at the time, studies were starting to show evidence to the opposite. None of the research took into consideration the well-being of young children. As more and more evidence is gathered about the emotions of animals we are able to adjust our learning to fit with this.

The field of neuroscience has really changed this perception, an animal getting distressed is damaging. It effects their social capabilities and this has long term, knock on effects for animals.

This is a recent seminar we gave to introduce the concepts of genetics, epigenetics, DNA replication, Nerve Impulse Transmission, Brain Anatomy and Neuroscience- Do not worry, it is pretty simple and covers it in nice usable language- Enjoy! Introduction To the Science Of Behaviour (Beginners) Seminar.

Leaving an animal to cry will make them less healthy, more difficult to manage, anxious and probably more fearful. These traits get passed down to the next generation. The attitude that dogs have to be “taught to be independent” is quite frankly coming back to bite us in the behinds. Why? because by forcing independence, we are actually creating the opposite, dependence. Studies have shown that giving them what they need, leads to greater independence, greater exploration and better confidence when left (Hewlett & Lamb 2005 hunter gatherer childhoods). Conditioning an animal to expect that his needs are not met, means he is far more likely to exhibit unhappy, aggressive & demanding behaviours and is far more likely to vocalise to get his needs met. This deep sense of insecurity is likely to stay with him for the rest of his life. We have a 7 day intensive course which covers the subject of emotional contagion. This covers the neuroanatomy, brain networks, evidence and discussions. Please see: Emotional Contagion & Empathy, The Neural Mechanisms & Evidence In Dog Behaviour

We have developed a 7 day separation anxiety survival guide to help anyone who is experiencing problems with leaving their dogs. This will set you up with the right foundations to leave your dog for increasing increments of time. Just a short video every day, training schedules, products, posters and advice so you can set him up to succeed! It covers the basis of attachment, object permanence and secure base attachment. Please go to: 7 Day Separation Anxiety Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional).

The trick here (according to research by Stein and Newcomb 1994) is that we respond before the distress occurs. We prevent the crying and implement soothing care from the outset (Jaaks P is doing some great work on opiod receptors and depression-  pathways see article:Somatosensory Development, The Psychobiological Substrates Of Attachment & Learning In The Critical Period). Distress patterns once set, are very hard to break. So, the attitude of leaving your dog to cry could potentially set you up with bigger problems further down the line and actually cause problems with separation distress. This is why the first 7 days of owning a young pupster are the most crucial. Our 7 day survival guide, will help you set your dog up to succeed:

Any animal which nurtures and raises its young will have the same psychobiological substrates. We use rats to study how human brains work. The one thing we can be sure of across the broad spectrum of sentience is that none of them are trying to control your life by crying. They are trying to control their own, or they feel out of control and the vocalisation is a sign that their needs are not met in some way. This is important to understand.

So, Meaney in 2001 identified a set of genes that are actually turned on by nurturance. This was conducted with rats who had high or low nurturing mothers and there is a critical period for turning on genes that control the animals emotions and the knock on effects set him up for life. It was shown, in the first 10 days, if you have a low nurturing rat mother the necessary gene (for dealing with the glucocorticoid response) does not get expressed and the anxiety is set for the rest of the animals life and he is more likely display disproportionate distress in new situations.

The relationship between a human and their canine is one of dyadic proportions. This should be a mutually symbiotic relationship which promotes the health and happiness of both parties (there is no pack or pack leader- Just a team of sentient’s getting along and making it work by trying to make it the best it can be see article: Dogs Do Not View Us As Part Of Their Pack). We no longer use unmodified extinction techniques in training and behaviour (such as cry it out), one of the famous phrases that has come to light through applied behaviour analysis is “what do you want the animal to do instead” (Dr Susan Friedman).  When applying a behaviour protocol we think about what function that has for the animal, how we can work with motivation of the behaviour function to bring about a solution which is more reinforcing to the animal. This is done using ABC’s of reinforcement, measuring and data. We break down the environment and contingencies to help all animals make better decision. With the least manipulative, compassionate intentions, we can teach (reinforce) an alternative behaviour. This does not just apply to dogs, it applies to cats, bird, humans, rabbits in fact, any animal.

One of the best protocols, (which can be modified) is, Dr Karen Overalls Relaxation protocol. This is one of the tools that should be in every behaviour persons tool box. Please see our behaviour consult resources to find out more about our protocols which we have developed for professionals to work through a wide variety of behaviour challenges.

So, what are the Neurological implications (damage) and how does this affect the relationship between the animal and caregiver?

Meeting the animals needs before he gets distressed (through appropriate training methods which we use in all of our courses) will, in turn, help him to self regulate. The body will be tuned up for calmness. So, when pupster gets scared and he is held and comforted, the animal builds an expectation for soothing. This will be integrated into his ability to self comfort (this gets paid forward in many ways for the other people/animals in the house- monkey see monkey do). When they are isolated, they do not self comfort (if the isolation causes stress, then we are not helping them to be healthily independent). If left in a distressed state too long, they will shut down, stop growing, stop feeling and stop trusting (Wang ’98).

If needs are met without distress during the sensitive period then there is a sense of trust in the world. This is because he feels supported. If needs are not met, then a sense of mistrust develops, confidence is low. This may result in the dog being clingy and easily anxious. (we talk about the neuroscience of critical periods and attachment) in the following articles:

When an animal displays discomfort, it signals that a need is not being met. The way we deal with this, requires a great deal of compassion, the ability to de-centre from your own stress levels (face it, being a care giver can be hugely stressful and listening to crying or screaming results in our own cortisol levels increasing) and understand how to meet the needs of the animal. His every need is down to you being able to understand what he is trying to tell you. This is why it is important to bring your entire ethos away from pack mentality and more in line with the current methods that are being scientifically proven and developed every single day. With the use of fMRI and cognitive learning experiments we have been able to successfully prove with experiments that dogs feel emotion and less motivated when they are exposed to hand signals (negative cue), No reward markers and lost opportunity markers.

Want to learn more about applied behaviour analysis?

We have just launched our first accredited applied behaviour analysis practitioner (level 1) course. This is an online, exam assessed course covering the core principles of applied behaviour analysis. It is accredited by the AABP and meets the core sequence requirements for certification as a behaviour professional. You will be an ABAP-1 on successful completion of this course sequence and will gain your certificate and your accredited logo: 

Further Courses, all of our courses are certificated and gain you CEU's
Some Of Our Other Articles

Authors Biography

To sign up to our newsletter through Facebook click here: Simply Behaviours Facebook Page