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  • Writer's pictureJUNO & CO

The Love Language of the limbic system

How it effects our dogs behaviours & emotions and how it supports science based, force free training.

The limbic system is the dogs emotional centre, which directly affects behaviour. It is in the limbic system that the simplest and most basic of emotions formulate (Bradshaw, 2012). This system is made up of the amygdala, which is responsible for fear and aggression, the hypothalamus, which triggers hormone release and the hippocampus, which controls memory function.

The cerebral cortex is the dogs thought centre. It controls higher cognitive functions such as learning, attention and problem-solving. The relationship between the cerebral cortex and the limbic system is influential over a dogs behaviour. When one system is active, the other continues with inhibited function. In terms of behaviour, if a dog is highly emotionally aroused (fearful, anxious, excitement), he can only concentrate on the cause of his arousal and will not be able to think or learn whilst his arousal is over threshold - he will not be able to obey our instructions or take on board our training. In converse, a task that requires a high level of focus and cognitive functions inhibits the dog from being able to feel intense emotions.


This knowledge allows us the ability to control a dogs focus and choices by reinforcing his reaction, through means of reward or punishment. We can override the conflict between what we want the dog to do, and what the dog wants to do themselves, by either increasing the value of the reward when he responds to us, or by punishing the decision to do what he feels like doing instead. As a science based trainer, I wouldn’t advise ‘punishing’ your dogs decision. Why? Take toilet training as an example. If you shout at your puppy when she toilets in the house, guess where she will toilet next time? Somewhere you can’t see! She may well have learnt that toileting inside in front of you leads to you making lots of noise, but problem solves this by avoiding you catching her in the act instead. However this situation unfolds, the cerebral cortex and hippocampus work together to record the event within the limbic system to strengthen future learning.

The hippocampus is possibly the most important part of this system, as it is responsible for maintaining this value system, and is the site where instinctive behaviour is played out to conclusion, creating and storing new memories (Fogle, 1992).

Using a reactive dog as an example, when faced with a trigger, the dog becomes emotionally aroused, thus unable to learn or follow cues as the cerebral cortex is inhibited. In order to override the limbic system in this situation, the handler would either have to increase the value of the reward, or reduce the height of the dogs emotions and bring him back under threshold. If the dog already has unwanted behaviours or reactions stored in the hippocampus, then the handler must spend time working with the limbic system in order to ‘delete’ these.

In this case, the handler can control the dog by ensuring they are aware of all triggers so that they can keep the dogs cognitive functioning engaged. If successful, the limbic system will be inhibited, preventing the dog from becoming overly stressed or emotional. This is counter-conditioning and is the basis of a large quantity of behaviour modification techniques.


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