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The Feeling Brain & Thinking Brain

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

As the very first blog post, there was a lot of pressure to come up with something witty, memorable, or profound... I'm honestly not sure if this topic constitutes any of those things, but I did at least want to touch on something that comes up a LOT in behavior counseling: Emotions in Pets.

I thought of this due to some conflict in my own house recently. Our 4 year old is going through a "growth" spurt, so his intellect has outgrown his ability to communicate and regulate his emotions. This ultimately results in WAY more tantrums. I see this a lot with my dog and cat patients, too. The smarter they are, the more outbursts they tend to have. We have a joke in the field that "stupid dogs don't have behavior problems." That said, just because an individual is highly intelligent, doesn't mean they're good as regulating and managing their "big feelings."

The easiest way I've found to explain this is by describing the brain as having two halves: the Thinking Brain and the Feeling Brain. These two halves make up the whole, so they are relative to each other. You can't have 100% Thinking Brain AND 100% Feeling Brain at the same time. You can have 50%/50% or 25%/75%. So when animals (or kids...) are having Big Feelings, their Feeling Brain is on at 95%. When you're asking them to do something (a command or cue) or focus on you, that's the Thinking Brain you're talking to. Thinking Brain isn't home right now. You get to deal with Feeling Brain instead. So... the approach needs to be different.

This is why so many behavior professionals tell their clients that once the reaction has happened, it's too late to do anything. Your dog isn't home right now. Instead, we need to implement damage control. How can we get our pet out of this situation, help them calm down, and then bring back the Thinking Brain? Depending on the situation or the animal in question, that might mean going home, going for a walk, bringing out a toy, etc. For some dogs, it's not enough just to take them out of that scenario, sometimes you have to guide their emotions down for them. This is the case with my dog, Bug. If she get's too wound up about something and starts grabbing with her mouth, I try to meet her emotional level where she is. I get really excited, throw toys, push her around, get her focused. From there, we slowly reduce the intensity. Less excitable play, shifting to quick, rough pets, and then softer, and then lying down... Once that Feeling Brain has settled, it allows the Thinking Brain to come back. Now I can actually ask her to do things, like go to bed and relax.

Essentially, I use similar principles with my kids. If their Feeling Brain is in control, I can't talk to his Thinking Brain. If I can, we leave the situation. If I can't, we'll go to a quiet area where he can vent his Big Feelings. Once he starts to calm down, I can ask for simple skills. I often use the "touch my finger" request with him. It's easy and has a strong reinforcement history.

For people familiar with the quirks of kids, using the toddler analogy really clicks. For the rest of us... we have to learn it the hard way...

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