Part 5: Neural Pathways & Their Role in Behavior Change

It’s now time to summarize Amber Batson’s discussion of neural pathways in our animal’s (and our) brains.

Neural pathways are “highways” of nerve cells which transmit messages in our brains. They grow and become stronger with more use, and weaken with less use. People who are very adept at texting have strong neural thumb use pathways. Animals who are skilled at hunting a certain type of prey have strong neural pathways for certain types of muscle coordination and decision making.

But why is this important to us when all we might want is for our dogs, say, is to come when called?

We are all continually creating, strengthening, and even weakening the neural pathways in our brains. A visual analogy is a path through a hay field. At first, the path will be hard to see and just a some bent grass. Over time with more use, the path will become more developed. If use continues, at some point the path will be visible and easy to follow. This is what’s happening as we all develop skills through repetition and practice. We’re developing strong neural pathways.

Footpath through the wheat field at Taddington, Peak District, UK Copyright Michael Cummins

Well developed neural pathways can be helpful if we’re developing a skill. As we often hear, “practice makes perfect.” Now, we can say, “practice makes stronger neural pathways which leads to faster reaction time.”

We welcome these strong neural pathways in some many aspects of our lives. Wouldn’t we want to speak a foreign language without having to hear the English version first in our brains than search for the translation? Wouldn’t we rather jump on our bicycle and ride without thinking of balance and coordination? Neural pathways can help us do what we want to do.

But, we can also create neural pathways which interfere with our decision making. Have you ever learned a sport on your own, then took a lesson with a professional who showed you an entirely different way to approach that skill? It take some concentration to stop defaulting to those known behaviors and move your body in the way the professional is suggesting. I saw this time and time again when I was a ski instructor. The “never-evers” where much easier to teach than the skiers who needed lessons because they learned from their best friend or spouse!

Do animals have the same challenges as us?

Yes! Animals create neural pathways like we do. And, like any teacher or parent, we can encourage or discourage the creation of neural pathways in our animals, too.

Teaching our dogs cues in a positive way is an example of how we assist in creating helpful neural pathways for our animals. For example, our dog sees someone’s hand in a certain position and feels good because he/she knows sitting will provide a reward. The stronger this pathway (ie: the more we practice), the more likely our dog will sit when he/she sees the visual hand cue for “sit.”

The “sit” behavior is one which can reap plenty of rewards for Laddie – so feels happy when we request it!

We can also create pathways which don’t help our dogs — and even lead to reactivity. One example is a repetitive game such as fetch. Amber Batson discussed how object throwing games can create “chase, jump, and grab” neural pathways. In other words, we can inadvertently encourage dogs to chase, jump, and grab children, bicycles, joggers, and even cars by playing fetch with our dogs over and over.

It’s important to think about our dogs in this way to help us figure out how to solve behavior issues. When we realize the behavior issue is actually something we encouraged, we have more empathy for our dogs. We also have more tools to help change the behavior we don’t like.

So, back to the “chase, jump, and grab” neural pathways…. If we do like to play fetch with our dogs, is there a way we can play with them without developing a generalized “see something moving away, chase after it, and grab it” behavior?

Fortunately, yes.

  • One way is to create context for the game. Dogs are very contextual so they can associate behaviors with certain people, objects, and places. So, if you only play frisbee fetch, limit it to your backyard, and have your dog play with just a few select people, you’re helping your dog contextualize the game of fetch to these specific routines, areas, objects, and even people.

This way, when you go to a public area, your dog isn’t anticipating a “chase & grab” game. Instead, she might be thinking of meeting other dogs, sniffing new scents, and exploring with her friends (including you of course!).

In contrast, think of the dog who plays fetch with every object he sees, with multiple people, and basically where ever he goes. First, the game of fetch can be highly stimulating, so he’ll be in a stimulated state in all these situations (we’ll talk about being “adrenalized” in the next writeup) – so he’s set up to chase, jump, and grab. Second, what do you think could happen if he sees a young child running away from him across a field? Or, a small dog? Or, some other dog’s tennis ball?

Yes, it’s not hard to imagine this dog reacting to a child, bicycle, jogger, or auto in the same way he does to any other object which moves away from him…

So, keeping these “neural pathway” rules in mind will help your dog to have a balanced (and safe) life!

  • In addition to contextualizing any repetitive activity which could have a negative “side effect,” you can also make sure your dog has variety in her life. So, when you go out to play, you might do some quiet, slow walking. You might hide objects or bits of food for your dogs to sniff out and find. You might also take care to make sure only, for example, 20% of your time with your dog is playing fetch.
  • And finally (although there are many more ideas out there), you can also be proactive and train your dogs to see movement as an opportunity for a reward from you. So, if your dog is clicker trained, you can help your dog by clicking when your dog notices movement, then tossing a treat away from the movement to encourage your dog to focus in the other direction. Eventually, your dog will see movement and look back at you for a reward. This is a wonderful neural pathway to create!
Searching for treats or just checking out the scents of others who passed by, is a wonderful activity for our dogs!

Once you understand the concept of neural pathways, you can also understand how your animal’s decision making might be influenced by strong, well-trodden neural pathways. Although Amber says these pathways will never disappear, they will diminish if they are unused. And, a stronger, competing pathway could prevail over time. This is why a strong part of our training at Mountain Hooves & Paws is to address undesirable behaviors in your animals by developing alternative behaviors and reinforce them over and over. We are all about developing new neural pathways and strengthening them.

So now, see if you can identify any strong neural pathways in your animal’s life. And, if they lead to undesirable behavior, you now know what to do next!