Addicted to Love?

June 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm Leave a comment

Are you, perhaps unwittingly, enabling a canine codependent?  Feeding – and maybe even creating – his addiction to love?

I’ve blogged about the idea of abstract rewards before.  Abstract ideas can be highly rewarding because our brains use the same kinds of processes to evaluate them that they do to calculate concrete rewards.  Neuronal firing rates help us compare the relative merits of the options we’re faced with and if the abstract reward excites our neurons more than the concrete one — that’s the thing we’ll hunger for.

The processes that govern abstract rewards are managed partly by the caudate nuclei, of a pair of C-shaped structures in the striatum.  The caudate nucleus has been referred to as one of the reward centers of the brain.  It’s important in expectations, self-control, addiction, compulsive disorders and falling in love.

Read Montague’s workshowed that our caudate nuclei learn to expect rewards.  In situations where we’ve learned to expect rewards, it is activated long before the reward arrives. And, if the reward doesn’t come as expected, the neurons stop firing and we experience feelings of disappointment or regret.

It feels good when our expectations are fulfilled and it feels bad when they’re not. The need to fulfill our expectations is the drive behind things like love and addiction.

So what do love and addiction have in common?  In normal brains the connection may be little more than a similar basis in neurochemistry. But in some individuals these two intense drives may share a genetic link.

In April of 2008 New Scientist reported that:

“A gene mutation determines whether or not macaque infants make a fuss when their mothers are missing, say researchers. A similar mutation has been linked to alcoholism and drug abuse in humans.”

When young animals spend time with their mothers or caretakers, their bodies release opioids that trigger temporary feelings of pleasure. These opioids activate the same receptors in the animal’s brains that opiate drugs do. The study found that infant macaques that had the most difficulty adjusting to their mother’s absence had a genetic mutation in their opioid receptors that made them more sensitive to opiate and opioid brain chemicals.

“These monkeys also seemed to cherish reunions. After each separation they tended to spend more time with their mothers, whereas macaques without the mutation didn’t make up for lost time. “These animals were much more likely to want to stay in social contact with their mothers,” says Barr.”

Barr conducted additional research to see how the mutation affected adult macaque’s desire for alcohol. She found that male macaques with the opioid receptor mutation drank more alcohol than monkeys without the mutation. A similar mutation found in humans is reportedly linked to alcoholism and drug abuse.

Do dogs who suffer from severe separation anxiety have a similar gene mutation?  I’m not talking about the under-exercised, over-indulged, fur-baby without boundaries that pitches a fit, barks incessantly and tears up the house when its servants owners don’t give in to its demands are out of sight. I’m talking about the rare beast that has a full-blown physiological panic attack when the object of its desire goes away. Those dogs aren’t normal.

Does a mutation in these dog’s opioid receptors make the abstract reward of the expectation of being reunited with their owners stronger than concrete rewards like steak or sex?  And when the reward owner doesn’t appear when they crave it, do they experience greater than normal feelings of disappointment and anxiety?

Activity in the caudate has also been tied to self-control.  Is clinical separation anxiety initiated when a dog with a mutation similar to that seen in the macaques starts out with a lowered threshold for self control; pushes incessantly for attention; has an owner gives in to that pushiness more often than he should – and subsequently gets the dog addicted to that attention?  An addiction that may be further complicated by the dog’s lack of self-control – often leading to destructiveness or even self-mutilation?

If so, this lends weight to the importance of being especially careful not to indulge dogs who constantly push for attention, because in doing so, one may be creating the addiction that will lead to clinical separation anxiety – an extremely difficult problem to fix.

If you have an excessively clingy dog that constantly seeks your attention, he may have an increased risk of developing separation anxiety.  It’s important not to indulge this kind of dog by petting him or otherwise giving him attention when he asks for it.  Please note that I am not telling you to stop petting your dog. Just stop doing it on his terms.  When your dog tries to crawl into your lap, nudges your hand for a pat, tries to lie down on your feet or otherwise tells you to give him attention – tell him to go away. Don’t make a fuss about it (because that kind of attention can become addictive as well).  Just calmly and firmly refuse to give in to his demand. Avert your gaze, brush him away gently and otherwise ignore him until he gives up.  No matter how long it takes.  If the dog persists obsessively in your seeking attention, he has the potential to develop full-blown separation and it is absolutely vital that you outlast his efforts.

But what about petting and affection – isn’t that a big part of the reason that we own dogs?  Certainly, and again – I’m not asking you to quit petting the dog altogether.  Just stop doing it on his terms.  Wait until the dog is engaged in something else; playing, resting, looking out the window – and then call him over to you and give him affection.

This may seem like a trivially small distinction to you, but in your dog’s mind there is an enormous difference between demanding attention from you and acceptingattention from you.  When he can successfully demand your attention, the dog thinks he can control it.  Giving him affection on demand can teach a dog that he controls your relationship – and may lead to a situation where his caudate nucleus learns to feel frustrated when his expectations of attention are not fulfilled – even when you aren’t there.

Of course these rules don’t apply to all human-dog relationships (what rules do!).  My girl Zip is an excellent example of the kind of dog who should get attention when she seeks it.  Zip is a timid and somewhat aloof dog. Obsessed with fetching, tugging and herding – she has almost no interest in treats or petting.  So on those rare occasions when she asks me to pet or snuggle with her – I do it.  I want to encourage her to be more affectionate, and letting her control when and how she gets affection is a good way to help a timid dog like Zip learn to enjoy it more.

What I don’t do (and don’t let other people do) is engage Zip in fetch and tug games when she demands it – because Zip’s obsession isn’t attention, it’s play.  And indulging that obsession could create an addiction just as ugly and problematic as separation anxiety.


Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs.

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