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The Listen Dog Blog

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I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!


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Why Smelly Meat Is The Key To Your Dog's Heart... And Brain!

By listendogtraining, Nov 10 2016 10:54AM

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself repeatedly talking to clients about the importance of using ridiculously strong-smelling treats in training and rehabilitation exercises, so I thought I’d go into a little detail on the matter here, in case anyone else could use a little help that only a handful of freshly cooked sausage will achieve!

The limbic system is the most primitive part of the dog’s brain, and is responsible for experiencing and expressing emotions, which can directly affect behaviour. It controls memory function, and is responsible for the way in which the dog perceives the world around him, and his own relationship to it.

The limbic system is made up of the amygdale (where aggression and fear are generated) the hypothalamus (which controls the release of hormones) the hippocampus (important for memory function) and parts of the cerebral cortex (where behaviour is organised) as well as other structures.

There is a direct link between the limbic system and the autonomic nervous system, which means that physical behaviours can be caused by emotions , e.g. a dog’s hunger and thirst is suppressed when he feels sad, which can result in many dogs not eating when they are left home alone, only to consume their food and resume drinking when their owners return. When there is any conflict in a dog’s mind over which course of action to take – because what he wants to do and what he has been instructed to do, differ – then this conflict is dealt with in the limbic system.

In terms of encouraging a dog to obey our instructions, even in times of conflicting desires, we must attempt to override this system, by either increasing the reward he gets for obeying our command, and making it greater than the reward he might naturally receive if he disobeyed (catching that cat he’s just spotted, for example) or by punishing his decision to ignore our command. If however, the reward you offer is of a lesser value to the dog than what it is currently doing, it is the limbic system that is responsible for your command being ignored.

How Does Smelly Food Help?

So important is a dog’s sense of smell, that a large part of its brain is devoted solely to the analysis of odours – the olfactory bulb. A dog has two olfactory bulbs, each weighing around 60 grams, which is four times as heavy as human olfactory bulbs. Pair this with the fact that the human brain is ten times bigger than that of a dog, and it becomes evident that the canine brain has 40 times the amount of its brain dedicated to smell alone, than we humans do.

The olfactory system is so incredibly important, as it means that a dog’s sense of smell bypasses their usual decision-making process entirely, and is linked directly to memory and emotion. As such, behaviourists can exploit this to help dogs very quickly overcome certain problems.

For example, engaging a dog’s nose with a smelly treat at the right moment can help to create a positive association where there was previously a negative one, helping to override the dog’s usual reaction to a chosen stimulus, which may previously have caused problems such as anxiety or aggression. So a dog that is anxious in the company of other dogs, children, or the vacuum cleaner, for example, can be taught to react positively if the reward is SMELLY enough. (Put the dry biscuits down and get out the cooked sausages!)

In stark contrast, a dog’s sense of taste is actually not that impressive; dogs have around 1700 tastebuds, whereas we humans have around 9000. It makes sense then, that when it comes to eating, the taste of the food is actually not the overriding factor when it comes to whether your dog is going to eat it or not, and is by no means as influential a factor to a dog as it is to a human. Smell is in fact believed to be the most important factor to a dog, followed by the texture of the food, and finally, how it tastes. So like I said – put those dry biscuits down, and get some juicy meat in the oven! The smellier the better when it comes to helping your dog commit a new skill to memory, or overriding a negative association and forming a shiny new positive one.

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