Animal Emotions – the driving force behind our dog’s behaviors

The Archeology of MindAs an animal lover it’s hard to imagine that, despite Darwin’s claims in 1872, it’s only until very recently that most people considered humans as the only emotional species on the planet. We’re living in very exciting times, an actual revolution in our approach to animals! More scientists are now on board with the idea that if animal brains are anatomically similar to that of humans, it only makes sense that how they think and feel is also quite similar to us. Some of the most innovative research on animal emotions is described in a book of Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (2012). I’ve referred to this book many times in my previous blogs and wanted to go further into some of the details of his work as it can contribute to our better understanding of our pets.

We’re constantly projecting our emotions on our dogs, but what is really going on in between those ears? When we’re willing to look beyond the shadow of anthropomorphism we can finally recognize the rich and complex emotional life of other beings.

According to Panksepp and his colleagues, there are 7 basic animal emotions, or as he calls them, 7 emotional systems, based on specific neural systems that have been identified: Seeking, Rage, Fear, Lust, Care, Panic and Play. These emotional systems are rooted in deep sub-cortical areas in the brain, in other words, in the more primitive areas of the brain that are very similar across all mammals. This is yet another indication that we share much of the same biology and that our differences are mostly in terms of degree.

Here’s where it becomes particularly interesting for those of us interested in behavior modification and training. One of our brain’s functions is to maintain relatively stable internal conditions even when we’re experiencing changes in the environment (homeostasis). This regulation is mostly unconscious, but when changes occur we consciously feel them.  Unless we put our focus on our feet, for instance, we generally won’t pay much attention to their physical state.  If we were injured however, we’ll feel pain and will pay attention to them. We may even learn to stay away from what just hurt our feet. Emotions work in similar ways, like feedback systems that inform us on how things are going. Emotions can be positive/pleasant, or negative/unpleasant, and also act as reinforcers or punishers. In a pure behaviorist approach, only external events can influence behavior, regardless of feelings. These findings on the other hand, suggest that feelings would in fact be the only true reinforcers and that we simply cannot ignore the animal’s internal experiences. Being petted by a person the animal has a relationship with will trigger a different emotion than being petted by a stranger. In the same way a correction will be felt very differently when administered by a trainer, a relative stranger to the dog, than when given by the owner who has a history with the animal. The action may be identical,  but the effect on the dog can be dramatically different.

Animal emotions are also considered to be at the basis of cognition or thought. Emotion is what guides us, what motivates our actions, what gets our attention when something is happening in the environment. Without the feeling of fear, for instance, we wouldn’t be looking for ways to be safe. Without the seeking system, we wouldn’t be interested in building rockets to go on the moon and dogs wouldn’t look for ways to get to the toy left out of reach. In many ways, at the root of the majority of our actions is an emotion. Our emotions drive people and animals into action and dictate our decisions. And we thought we were rational, thinking beings! There is however a difference between our dogs and us. The human neocortex offers us the ability to further process some of those primary emotions into more elaborate emotions like shame or guilt.

Because humans and animals are so emotionally driven, it’s important to be able to identify and understand the 7 basic emotional systems. Recognizing what emotional state our dog is in can help us adapt our own behavior for a more positive and constructive interaction. At the same time, we need to take responsibility for our own emotions and understand their effects of our reactions and behavior on our pet.

Panksepp’s 7 Basic Emotions:

1-    The seeking system

This emotional system is at the basis of many behaviors. When we’re engaged in a task that we enjoy, we experience a certain amount of pleasure from the activity itself. This pleasure is mostly due to a release of dopamine. In dogs, this system is activated when engaged in behaviors they have been bred for, like herding, stalking, chasing or running. This system can lead to addictive pleasure-seeking behaviors and when dogs cannot perform the behaviors that have a strong genetic basis, they will redirect their drive onto other behaviors that may be considered as undesirable by their human caregiver.

2-    The rage system

Angry dogThe rage system exists in all mammalian brains. When the seeking system is aroused but cannot be satisfied, like with excessive frustration, hunger or thirst, the person or animal can get angry. Rage can also arise when the animal is restricted from activity or when experiencing irritation or pain. Lack of love and acceptance, restriction from rights and pleasures, neglect or abuse, all have the potential for damaging effects on the person or animal and engender long lasting anger.

Things get even more complicated when different emotions get mixed.  The fear system, for instance, can trigger an animal’s defensiveness even more than rage alone.

3-    The fear system

Three distinct neural pathways have been identified:

The high road: When the animal hears a sudden noise or sees a scary object, the information is carried to the sensory cortex where cognitive processing will take place. This is when the dog can make a decision of the best action to take to stay safe. If a dog that is generally reactive to other dogs is unlikely to display any aggressive behavior when introduced in a large group of dogs. The behavior that works when only one dog is around is simply too dangerous in this situation.

The low road: when a dog has been previously exposed to a scary situation, that memory is now stored and the information will go directly from the thalamus to the amygdala. In this pathway, there are no decisions made. The dog will have an immediate emergency response. This is why it’s always best to take the time to desensitize the dog to anything that scares them.

The royal road: when the animal is repeatedly exposed to stressful situations, it will develop neural pathways that will help it anticipate and possibly avoid the situation altogether. This route runs between the amygdala and the periaqueductal gray of the midbrain and is at the core of anxiety disorders.

4-    The lust system

No need to go into much detail with the lust system, this one speaks for itself. This system is of course involved in all reproduction activity and will elicit highly desirable feelings. The strong urges associated with these emotions are important as they contribute to the survival of the species.

5-    The care system

Present in all mammals, the care system is critical to the survival of the offspring. The distress calls of cows when separated from their calves for milk production illustrates how powerful this emotion can be. In the same way, bitches will run to the distressed calls of their pups. The care system is triggered by a change in hormone levels and activates the mother’s ability to look after her young, but it’s also involved in the bond that our dog and us develop for each other.

6-    The panic system

Separation anxiety is a direct product of the panic system. Extensive research on the effects of separation in several mammal species has shown that social pain is a deep rooted and ancient emotion. It probably evolved to ensure that members of the same group don’t get separated from each other and be exposed to danger. The areas in the brain that regulate this system also show considerable overlap with areas responsible for physical pain suggesting that separation can trigger distressing emotional reactions to the animal. In the most extreme cases, separation anxiety is a real panic attack.

7-    The play system

Dogs Playing at Dog Park, Olympia, WA

The play system is characterized by the release of endorphins or other opioids generating a euphoric state of mind. Play is very important in animals (and humans of course) as it promotes a more relaxed and happy state of mind. Play also facilitates social attachments as well as better social skills.

This is a very short summary of Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven’s book and it really doesn’t do it justice, but I wanted to at least give a few of the basic concepts that they present since emotions play a key role in our pet’s behavior. Understanding their impact can help us identify the underlying drives or needs that our dogs may display. When a dog is barking, chasing, or even biting, he’s experiencing an emotion that can sometimes develop and get worse if left unaddressed. Punishing a dog for reacting to other dogs, for instance, may provide the desired results by inhibiting the behavior, but has done nothing to alleviate the underlying feelings associated with the behavior. In the long run, the problems are likely to come back. Incorporating these new ideas into our training could help us develop even more effective protocols.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

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Posted in Dog behavior, emotions, Psychology, science
4 comments on “Animal Emotions – the driving force behind our dog’s behaviors
  1. Wes Anderson says:

    Animal Emotions has been a growing topic lately.. here is another article on that topic…

  2. Love this article, the book and Marc Bekoff. 🙂

  3. Peta says:

    Fantastic summary of the book. I’m on my second reading now and loving the ‘ new window ‘ this research is giving us trainer to see behaviour through. You are right, this is exciting times!

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  1. […] with positive expectations. The activation of this region of the brain has been linked with the motivational state ‘seeking’ (Panksepp, 2004), so it triggers a desire to approach or consume. It’s interesting to see that in […]

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