Change Reactivity To Resilience

Sally Gutteridge
Does your dog have a negative or positive bias and can you change their bias?

All animals alive today have an innate negative bias at some level. As part of evolution, negative bias has kept all successful species’ alive long enough to reproduce and grow in numbers. If an animal sees danger where there is none, that animal is much more likely to stay alive than the animal that sees no danger when it’s everywhere. Even when there is very little danger in the animal’s life – or even the humans – the part of the brain which evolved to look for that danger is still there. This leads to all sorts of problems in the modern lifestyle and can play a big part in stress and fear of perceived threats. 

Negative bias is an expectation of the worst possible outcome from an experience. In the case of dogs that react to triggers in the environment, their negative view has convinced the dog that the trigger is a danger to them, starting the stress reaction. A negative dog will default to stranger danger, as soon as someone new gets too close for comfort. Negative personality types will see danger everywhere, whereas positive outlook dogs won’t.

The nature of positive bias is to expect the best outcome from a situation. Puppies are generally positive if they have been raised without a need to be fearful. A nurtured puppy will see a stranger and immediately see them as a friend. As he gets older and without learning otherwise, the puppy may tire of playing with every dog they meet and simply say hello to the new dog and move on. Despite their social interaction changing, the canine optimist will still expect the other dog to be friendly and greet without conflict.

Because the positive outlook dog is calm, particularly in comparison to the negative bias dog, he tends to have more head space to make measured and well considered choices about his own behaviour. Whereas the negative dog may see a trigger, immediately fly into survival mode and go directly over threshold – then react in just two or three seconds. One of the reasons we aim to build positive bias is to increase the available time for the dog’s decision making process, providing them with the head space required to make healthy choices about their own behaviour.

You can learn through observing your own dog whether they expect positive or negative results from an environmental trigger or something they try. If they react with fight, flight or freeze to something in the distance they are expecting the worst from the thing they see and are being negative. If they are keen, happy and relaxed when they see a potential trigger, the dog is expecting the best from the meeting and being positive.

As you’re reading this and it is about building resilience in place of reactivity I suspect that you consider your dog has a negative bias by this point. All is not lost though because we can teach positive bias, as part of growing the confidence of our dogs and offering them the tools for empowerment.

In its most simple form, teaching your dog to expect positive results is showing him that most circumstances end with a successful result. We can do this in simple steps that work together to build a foundation, upon which we can grow your dog’s confidence and resilience. Naturally extinguishing fear and reactive responses. .

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