How to Change Your Dog’s Mind about Something

If your dog has an idea that something is “bad” and you want to change it to “good,” try pairing up the unfavorable event with his favorite thing. If he despises your uncle Ron and worships the tennis ball, make Ron = tennis ball. If the ball only appears when Ron comes over, and lives on the shelf until he does, your dog will be hard-pressed to hate Ron as much as he used to. He may not want to be Ron’s best friend, but maybe he will at least play fetch with you while Ron is there instead of running into the bedroom.

Without wasting precious time and energy on irrelevant information. It’s kind of like Google for the brain.

The process of filtering and organizing sounds, sights, smells, and other events is largely unconscious, running deep into the psyche as a basic mechanism of survival for even the simplest of creatures. Critical to the primal survival of even the simplest organisms, this kind of learning in action is often referred to as lizard brain.

From toads to tigers, the identification of meaning in the environment motivates the animal to pay attention, potentially pursue opportunities, and avoid imminent danger. Rudimentary, reflexive, emotional, and largely unconscious, these classically conditioned responses help us to read the map of life and respond in ways that help us live to see another day. The search for and discovery of meaning in life is the basis of our ideas about the world, and plays a critical role in setting the stage for all of our reactions and behaviors.

GENETIC MEANING: All creatures are designed to reflexively respond to certain sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and events as meaningful, while completely ignoring the rest of them. Our bodies and brains “remember” what our ancestors learned about the meanings of certain things.

Your dog naturally notices the scampering of squirrels in the yard, the expressions of emotion on your face, and the smells inside your garbage can. He ignores the new red flowers you planted that the hummingbirds are obsessed with, the acorns in the yard the squirrels have been so busy collect-ing, and the stack of bills on the table that’s totally stressing you out.

Your dog also learns from his own experiences, and is taking notes about the meaning of the world around him for the benefit of his potential offspring. He doesn’t consciously know when this is happening, of course. For example, after he was attacked by a bear last year on that camping trip, he began to relate the smell of a bear with life-threatening danger. He didn’t consciously make a note for his future descendants, but he did note that bear smell = bad. The trauma associated with that smell could actually change his DNA and prime his descendants to be fearful of and actively avoid the smell. So this type of experience does not necessarily end with him. If he were to reproduce, the message about the bear smell could be passed on to his offspring. It’s a recently understood natural event called “epi-genetic inheritance,” and it’s the best proof we’ve ever had that learning is an evolutionary event.

Modern epi-geneticists have discovered that these experiences can leave epi-genetic “tags,” which actually reprogram the animal’s DNA. The exciting new interdisciplinary field of neuro-ethology takes an in-depth look at how animals have come, over the course of many years, to recognize the meaning of important information in their environments on a neurological level, and how that data is stored and passed on in order to modify the behavioral and even physical shape of future generations as a result.

We are really starting to understand, as science continues to shed light on these processes, how capable all species are of adapting their senses, bodies, and behaviors to automatically respond to signals in their environment that are meaningful to their survival. As the world changes, each generation is given the chance to add their own two cents to the user manual for a species and family. The genetic software is endlessly being updated for better performance in the future.

CONDITIONAL MEANING: Because the world is constantly changing (often extremely, from one moment to the next), animals have to be primed to roll with the punches. Information that might have been relevant five minutes ago (i.e., the placement of the bowl on the floor elicits salivation because it means that it is time to eat!) could suddenly be totally unimportant because a condition has shifted (the scent drifting through the open window of a bear in the nearby woods elicits instant fear and means it’s not safe to eat now). When it comes to meaning, the truth is that learned associations are never static in real life. What something actually means in a given moment always depends on the circumstances. How it is perceived, and even whether it is perceived at all, depends on the greater context it occurs in. Meanings, like everything else, do not exist in a vacuum.