Attachment, Development and Emotion- A Neurobiological Perspective

Exposure to bad experiences early in life, will affect the way that animals anticipate and process sensory input. Traumatic experiences induce a complex series of (neurological and physiological) alterations in what the animal will perceive as a threat. This will be expressed in how they think, feel, behave and regulate their biologic systems. You will often hear us talk about something called emotional set-point. This article is quite the essence of what this means.

Look at the biology of bad experiences during development, studies have shown, that isolated bad incidents tend to produce discrete conditioned behaviour and biologic responses to things that remind them of the trauma. Chronic maltreatment or unavoidable trauma tends to permeate the entire neurological system, particularly in the developmental stages. The most important factors we need to consider, when looking at how bad experiences effect our animals, is the age at which they occur, the frequency and the degree to which the attachment figures contribute to the event being traumatic. To gain a more thorough understanding of the neuromechanisms that come into play when considering behaviour of our animals we have put together two seminars on the introduction to the neuroscience of behaviour. There is a beginner, online seminar and a degree level one. This discusses, anatomy, neurotransmission, physiology of the central nervous system, DNA replication, epigenetics and behaviour. Please go to: Introduction To the Science Of Behaviour (Beginners) Seminar

Introduction To the Neuroscience of Behaviour On-line Seminar (Degree level)

So, what does this mean? Well, if an animal does not get the right sort of foundations, feedback and experience in his critical stages, this expresses as problems with self regulation, aggression against self and others, problems with attention, physical problems & social problems. The basis for the right experience, comes from the relationship that the animal has with his attachment figures. In your household this could be another dog, you, your cat or any other animal that the dog is attached to. It is ideally all of you!!! You will often hear people talk about the value of consistency. To a certain extent, if everyone knows what is expected of them and the rules are the rules, then the foundations for a secure being is partially in place. They do not have to be set in stone and the skill here comes down to the way these things are communicated. You are far more likely to succeed, if you set the environment up with praise, rewards and positive outcomes for the things the animal does well (an antecedent arrangement that the animal has no choice but to succeed positively in). Rather than just punishing them for the things they do not. What we do in our relationship with our families, animals, other people etc is a reflection on how we feel inside and if those foundations are brittle and the attachment is not safe, then the outcome can be slightly disproportionate, in terms of what we might define as the normal distribution of output behaviour (basically, over the top reactions!!)

Bad experiences effect development pathways in several ways: 1) The maturation of brain structures at the particular ages, 2) Physiological and neuroendocrinological responses (hormones, neurotransmitters etc) 3) The capacity to coordinate cognition, emotional regulation and behaviour. Ornitz has categorised about 4 critical periods in development. Please see a little diagram of our critical periods poster which is in the training resource survival pack. This gives a great overview of what to expect at different life stages. You can get the pack (currently set at 50% off) if you go to:


Developmental stages were previously outlined by Piaget (one of the founding fathers in psychology separation is the foundation of the term object permanence, which we will be explaining further in our course on 7 day separation anxiety survival guide). A lot of his work was done, trying to understand stages of human child development. As we can not progress a dogs understanding of external danger, cognition & perception etc past that of a 2 year old child. Any studies beyond this point, are interesting but less applicable. However, the foundations of critical development are fundamental for ANY animal.

The amygdala (region of the brain responsible for our basic emotions such as fear and aggression) is the part of the brain that starts functioning almost immediately after birth, so the animal is primed to assess fear and danger. The hippocampus (the area of the brain associated with types of memory) puts danger in a spatial context and matures gradually as approach to adolescence occurs. Early experiences significantly affect the maturation of the hippocampus and if the right foundations are not put into play, then the animal is left vulnerable to misinterpret sensory input towards the direction of danger and threat!!!!

Prolonged alarm reactions, by any animal, will alter the limbic, mid brain and brain stem functions through modifications, that come about through use (this is reflected in DNA replication and the way that neurotransmitters travel and keep the synapses “alive”, for want of a better term). Chronic exposure to threat is apparent in the way the hippocampus, left cerebral cortex, and how the cerebellar vermis alters the capacity to integrate sensory stimuli. All these things combined will alter the way in which the the animal will modulate limbic, mid-brain and brain responses to danger and fear. A severely traumatized animal will have problems with cognition, impulse control, aggression, emotional regulation etc…

So, what you might ask, is the relevance of this to attachment? Why is this important? Well, studies have shown, that if animals are raised in supportive, secure environments, they are less affected by traumas that might occur. They are more resilient. Why? Animals quite frankly, will mimic their environment. If the trauma affects the safety of attachment, then the ability to integrate the sensory, emotional world is disturbed. This is one of the reasons why it is imperative to allow a safe attachment without the risk of OVER attachment. The latter being the foundation for a separation distress reaction. Quite simply, over attachment will also set the stage for unfocused and irrelevant responses to subsequent stress. I think this is one of the things that we are limited on when we use the quadrants, they are great at helping behaviour people work out what the antecedent, behaviour and conditioners are and breaking these down to their finite ABC’s are what any good behaviour person should be doing (according to Dr Susan Friedman). This is a given. We all use it. However, we can also, consider the emotional set point of the animal. This will help us to understand whether or not he has a tank full of cortisol (cortisol=bad)! Also,the dominance pack type theories are limited in their explanation and there is no consideration here to individuality. According to Dr Daniel Mills Lincoln University- you get more differences between the same breeds than you do across them- think about that! Basically, all animals are totally individual. Not very useful when you want a quick answer and a quick fix, is it? I guess that is why, the research and the general theories are a good start point and the lack of one size fits all, is a much debated topic among trainers and behaviour people. Even neuroscientists disagree on their various disciplines and quite a few of them do not take into consideration that there is a body attached to the organisms brain that they are analysing :-). This is why Jaaks Panksepps work on the opiod receptors as a method to treat depression, particularly in animals, (human ones) with early attachment deprivation, is very exciting right now. More on this topic another time, but it really does consider the whole organism, rather than just one part. Touch, is huge for attachment, learning, emotions and development!!!!!!!

We digress, we really want to get the message across, that secure emotional attachments provide the foundations for good learning experiences and decisions. Being able to deal with environments which might increase arousal, but not to the point where the animals response is disproportionate, is the definition of a stable organism. One of the fundamental ways of helping to reduce anxiety, is to make sure that every day, your dog has significant down time (to recharge his cortisol supplies, if you like), in his crate or safe area, where it is quiet, he can relax and be safe by himself. This will help set him up to not become overly trigger stacked and will help him not to develop separation problems too (assuming you have taught him to be independent of you from an early age, or he is happy to do so, otherwise, do not do this without the help of a professional).

Attachment figures are imperative to help an animals develop normal play and exploratory activities. The balance between stimulation and soothing is paramount here. This has been reflected in studies of heart rates in mothers and children playing. The heart rates are in parallel when they interact. This reflects the capacity of a care person to modulate physical arousal, it reinforces attachment to you and the movement between exploring and coming back to caregiver has been referred to as (by Stern) “affect attunement”. This is fundamental to effective communication between a care person and an animal and involves complex mirroring and echoing, in either a similar, or different mode. To provide a stable framework of soothing and appropriate feedback, in the event of stressful situations, plays a critical role. It will help him to regulate his psychoneurobiological factors and the biological structures will be in place. This enables him to deal more effectively with future stressful events. These controllable stress reactions, in infancy, are essential for nervous system development. The connections that are made, in the early stages, will enable subsequent exposure to stressors to be less of a big deal.

Bowlby & Stern talk about the inner map of the world and how secure attachment creates this. It is fundamental to the emotional set point of any animal. This determines his perception of the way the world works.

Just one last thing. Total stimulus deprivation is far more extreme. This is more detrimental to development than abuse. This was mentioned in the Hubel and Wiesel studies of kittens and eye development, but there have been many animal studies on attachment. They have given us enough evidence to show that deprivation, is far more damaging to development, than anything else. Studies by Widom have shown, that these experiences are far more likely to lead to aggression and dysfunction. Over the course of development, structural and neurochemical changes in the brain develop. This allows for more complex, cognitive, organisational structures, which are used to interpret sensory information in a more USE dependent way. The genome will provide the framework of what could potentially occur, the mother alters how the genes are expressed and the quality of this affects the development of the hippocampus, synapses and endocrine responses to stress.

There appears to be some evidence to suggest valency and volume of the hippocampus and how that relates to stress. The left hippocampus, in prolonged stress cases, is smaller than healthy controls, with the right side being normal. As were other brain regions, including the amygdala, caudate nucleus & temporal lobe. The valency issue is still under much debate among scientists. Greg Burns recently conducted a wonderful experiment using FMRI and found that dogs have a caudate nucleus. This is an area of the brain that we feel represents the presence of emotional feelings. There is a great article entitled “Dogs are people too” This research, we hope, will have many welfare and legal follow-ons.

So, the next time Fido (or Stanley) lunges forward to bark at something that he has not seen before, or he starts to react to something that he has not been bothered by before, consider that he might be in a stress state (so does he need a break from triggers), what are he current suit of triggers? and consider what technique you are going to use to try and understand him better! Remember, if you condition/pair with an aversive outcome, the animal will also learn to associate the context in which the learning occurs, with the aversive outcome (damage to the hippocampus). This will also, increase glucocorticoid receptor density in the hippocampus and large amounts of this, impair explicit memory (whereas moderate amounts will facilitate it). This is exactly, the reason why, we won’t get the best out of him, when he is in a stressed state and having a cortisol holiday is the best idea for everyone. Remember it takes about 72 hours for the cortisol levels to subside after a reaction to a trigger.
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  • Neuroscience Of Puppy Development- A short course to cover the neural mechanisms of puppy development.
  • The Neuroscience Of Emotions In Training/Behaviour – A course covering the basics to help you understand and consider affective states to help you approach your training from the emotional perspective of the animal.
  • Clinical Aggression (protocols, understanding, training) A practical course, covering all of the latest research to give you a science based approach to understanding these challenges.
  • 6 Week Gundog Course- This covers the basics to set your dog up with the foundations. This will get him ready to go into the field. We use clicker training and science methods only. We help you build your dog from reliable foundations of trust and a solid bond.
  • How To Market Your Animal Business- How to win, maintain, grow your business with effective marketing & business development strategies. How to work as a team with your client to build solution based understanding and employ realistic & effective protocols. We will cover an interactive role play (workshop) to help develop your “influencing” skills and to help build your confidence in client based environments. How to go that extra mile but making sure you get a return on your efforts and reduce time wasted.
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