Sniffing Your Way to Better Hospital Experiences – Materials

11 - The Food/Brain Relationship - Stifling Fear

The Food/Brain Relationship – Stifling Fear

Understanding the relationship between food and the brain provides us with crucial information not just on how the brain works, but how we can use the knowledge to help dogs learn and modify behavioral states such as anxiety and fear. Stimulating a dog’s sense of smell with food, for example, not only motivates a dog to learn, but is a valuable tool in changing the way the brain works. Some people think that using food as a reward is tantamount to bribery but what they do not understand is just how powerful food is, not just as a motivator, but because food is incompatible with fear.

When a dog is fearful, a number of changes happen in the body.

The heart beats faster, blood pressure rises and blood flow is diverted to muscles that prepare for fight or flight. If food is presented before the dog reaches a high level of stress, a positive emotional response can occur in the presentation or anticipation of the food.

There are circuits in the dog’s brain that encourage seeking or hunting behavior and circuits that elicit a fear response. When you stimulate a dog’s seeker system, by presenting him with a tasty treat or a toy filled with food, and encourage him to play a game in the presence of something he fears, this activity will turn on his seeker system and shut off his fear. This is one reason why activities such as scent work is so valuable for fearful dogs. Cognitive scientists have described this phenomenon in dogs whereby turning on the “thinking brain” deactivates the “emotional brain,” enhancing a dog’s attention with positive motivation and allowing him to move into a calmer state where learning can take place.