Understanding emotional states to resolve behaviour problems in border collies

behavioural problems of border collies

Research and ongoing scientific studies have, over the last 10 – 20 years, progressed to looking at emotions in animals and dogs, in particular, a process that we have been taught to focus on during the MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour at the University of Lincoln.  This is different to more established forms of dog behavioural assessment, which tended to focus on the dog’s environment and events that happened immediately prior to problem behaviour as well as the consequences of the behaviour.  I apply this process to the assessment of all behavioural problems in border collies and can create tailored behavioural and training plans with good outcomes.

There are 9 recognised emotions, or affective states, that we believe dogs may experience:

  1. Desire – where the dog is wanting to find/acquire resources such as food or toys.
  2. Frustration – where the dog wants something but is unable to get to it due to a physical or other barrier.
  3. Fear – when the dog is afraid of something or is anxious that something it is afraid of is about to appear.
  4. Pain – when the dog is in pain.
  5. Attachment – this is when the dog feels safe and secure, can either be a person, other animals, or places.
  6. Affiliation – the dog’s social group – can be other people or animals.
  7. Lust – how the dog feels about sexual partners, appropriate sexual partners or otherwise!
  8. Care – typically the emotions that a mother dog feels towards her young, those in need of care and protection, but dogs can feel this about humans as well.
  9. Hate – when the dog does not want another person or dog to join its social group for various reasons.

So how does this work in practice?

For each border collie behaviour problem that I encounter, I run through the following process:

  1. Examine the dog’s environment when the behaviour occurs. Is there anything obvious that is causing the dog to experience any of the nine emotions that can be leading to the behaviour problem?
  2. Observe the arousal of the border collie. For instance, for fear or frustration, we would expect the dog to be highly aroused.  If the collie is experiencing a lower level of arousal, then we might consider care or affiliation.
  3. Look at the behavioural tendencies of the dog to try and infer what is motivating him to behave in that way. Is he, for instance, barking at other dogs because he actually wants to hurt them (possibly hate or frustration) or because he wants to create distance between him and the other dogs due to fear?
  4. Look to see what signals the dog is trying to communicate. Are his hackles raised and his teeth bared, or is he licking his lips or sniffing the ground? Dogs communicate many signals to us all the time and it takes experience and practice to be able to pick these up and understand what the dog is trying to say.

By working through the process and eliminating different emotional states, we are left with fewer to consider in more detail.  We can then create a hypothesis or theory about what emotional state may be causing the behaviour issue and create imaginative situations in which to test these hypotheses without causing the dog any undue stress or anxiety.

Advantages of this approach

The advantages of considering the emotions of the dog compared to other behavioural intervention methods are:

  1. If we think we know (it’s not possible to 100% know) what emotions the dog is experiencing, we can help the dog to cope better in different circumstances and manage its emotions to help prevent the problem behaviour from occurring.
  2. If a dog is consistently feeling the same emotions in a range of different situations, addressing the emotion that is the cause of the problem may solve more than one problem behaviour.
  3. By acknowledging how the dog is feeling, we can ensure that any behavioural and training plans we create make the dog feel better, safe of secure, rather than attempting a behavioural intervention that might actually make things worse for the dog.

This process of inferring which emotions we suspect are causing the dog and owner problems is called the psychobiological approach to behaviour management and is starting to be used by a range of canine organisations, from Guide Dogs to Rescue Centres, such as Jerry Green Dog Rescue.  If you’d like to know more about this process and understand how I apply it to behavioural problems in border collies, then please get in touch! I’ll be happy to go through it and explain how we can use this approach to help your collie.

2 thoughts on “Understanding emotional states to resolve behaviour problems in border collies”

  1. my 6 year rescue collie has started to be distructive in the home when we out shopping he seems to like crewing wood as he has damaged our lounge room door, he is normally fine to be left for a short while but not today can you advise us how to work through this problem

    • Hi Val, it sounds like he has some sort of separation related behaviour issue. This can be caused by a range of different emotions, such as actual separation anxiety, or fear of some sort of sound or event that could happen while you are away (it’s often caused when there is a thunder storm when the owners are absent). He could be reacting to sounds or sights he can hear outside the home, it could be barrier frustration, often known as FOMO (fear of missing out) or it could just be that he is bored. If we worked together, we would find out the emotion behind the behaviour and then work on changing that. It can be quite a long process, depending on what is causing it. but sometimes there can be changes that can help immediately. It’s very difficult to say without going into it in a consulation.


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