Canadian Vet, published since January 2006, provides continuing education to the veterinary profession in Canada through coverage of both national and international veterinary conferences. Written with the busy practitioner in mind, each bimonthly issue offers news, relevant and practical clinical and practice management information, as presented by leading experts. All articles are veterinarian reviewed and approved prior to publication.

Advisory Board Members

Canadian Vet is supported by an advisory panel of esteemed Canadian veterinarians.

Elizabeth Bellavance

Elizabeth Bellavance, DVM, MBA, CEPA


Søren R. Boysen

Scott Weese,



Trisha Dowling

Trisha Dowling,



David Francoz

David Francoz,



Fraser Hale

Fraser Hale,



Danny Joffe

Danny Joffe,

DVM, DABVP (canine/feline)

Steve Noonan,


Duane Landals

Duane Landals,


Susan Little

Susan Little,

DVM, DABVP (feline)

Ernie Prowse

Ernie Prowse,


John Tait

John Tait, BSc,


Scott Weese

Søren R. Boysen, DVM, DACVECC

Joseph C. Wolfer

Joseph C. Wolfer, DVM, DACVO


Clayton MacKay,


Adronie Verbrugghe,


Stephen Waisglass,


Jayne Takahashi,




Canadian Vet is unique in that it keeps Canadian veterinarians informed about the latest companion animal, livestock, equine, avian, exotic and other animal species health issues. Each issue also includes useful practice management articles. Canadian Vet is written by our own team of expert medical writers, and is reviewed for accuracy.

Our mission is to be a recognized and credible source of continuous learning to the Canadian veterinary profession by imparting up-to-date information on patient wellness strategies, animal health research, and veterinary practice management topics.

Emotional development and learning in dogs

WINNIPEG, MB - The first few months of a puppy’s life are very busy.  There’s lots of eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing.  And repeat.  Over and over again.  During this time, puppies develop and manifest emotions and affiliative behaviours that will have an impact on their future relationships with people and other animals. Understanding the different points in their emotional maturity will help veterinary team members guide our clients to offer dogs their fullest and happiest lives, said Dr. Colleen Fisher, DVM, speaking at the CenCan Veterinary Conference.
Puppies learn voice and body language cues from siblings and adult dogs by the time they are 5 weeks old.  Depending on maternal influences, most pups will be weaned by 6-7 weeks and begin to exert independence by approaching novel objects and moving stimuli on their own.  One-litter pups (small breed litters) and orphaned puppies are at a definite disadvantage as they may have difficulty learning appropriate self-control in dealing with other dogs and people. 
Vision and brain wave function reach adult levels at approximately 8 weeks of age.  Puppies begin to show fear postures and we see startle reactions become more pronounced.  Historically this is the time when breeders, veterinarians and pet owners will expose young puppies to a variety of people, other animals, objects, sounds, and environments including light and dark situations.

First fear impact period

Healthy puppies will choose to investigate new stimuli as opportunities are available, but not all puppies are prepared for exposure to all stimuli at specific stages.  They may become fearful of specific and generalized stimuli if not previously habituated to new objects, environments and experiences.  Excessive stress or flooding may sensitize puppies to general novelty or threat and shape a lifelong inability to cope or act appropriately in response to new experiences.  Observant caregivers will offer choice in engagement and be aware of situations that are too threatening in order to encourage healthy development.
Dr. Fisher recommended that healthcare team members consider low-stress ‘less is more’ handling techniques, positive reinforcement using assorted food rewards, comfy towels and easy-clean mats to decrease slipping, and synthetic pheromone spray aids to provide the optimal experience for puppy visits.  At this time, puppy socialization classes can have a great benefit for many dogs.  Dr. Fisher advised that the influence of the group cannot be diminished and noted that unruly dogs can take cues from well-mannered dogs in a class situation with a good trainer. 

Second fear impact period

Between 9 and 18 months, dogs experience sexual maturity and their final growth spurts.  Reactivity levels rise causing dogs to act defensively in response to fearful stimuli.  We may see a reduction in confidence where dogs are not encouraged to explore and investigate in a secure manner.  During this time, dogs may show resource guarding, territorial displays, and lunging at other dogs on walks.  Fearful and potentially aggressive displays may be aggravated by inappropriate human response.  We can help owners by letting them know that verbal and physical punishment may cause inadvertent reinforcement and escalation in these behaviours.
This is also the age when many clinics are recommending spay and neuter procedures. Veterinary staff can use low-stress handling techniques and hospitalization with warm blankets, low lighting, and soft music.  Individualized pain control plans including anxiolytics can minimize learned fear responses in young patients.

Physiology of emotions and learning

Jaak Panksepp, a cognitive researcher, studied the emotional systems of dogs and identified seven basic emotions: CARE, SEEKING, PLAY, LUST, PANIC, FEAR, and RAGE.  Canine emotions are influenced by neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine.  Serotonin enhances positive affective states (CARE, SEEKING, PLAY, LUST) and inhibits negative states (PANIC, FEAR) and aggressive responses (RAGE). Dopamine helps to focus attention and promotes feelings of satisfaction.
Dogs explore the world through their senses.  Their noses may be their greatest asset, and olfaction can bypass other brain processes and send signals directly to the amygdala to influence emotional states.  For instance, the scenting of food initiates SEEKING and PLAY emotions and may decrease FEAR, PANIC, and RAGE.  This allows us to use food to counter-condition undesirable behaviours based on negative affective states in many dogs.

Touch is another sense we can use to improve our interaction with dogs.  Gentle, firm touch alleviates psychic pain through the release of internal opioids, oxytocin, and prolactin.  Social bonding through physical closeness is an addictive process, and we see this phenomenon in rescue dogs who slowly learn to accept and enjoy petting and physical praise from people.  There is evidence that dogs become more attached to humans than to other dogs based on our responsiveness to their specific needs.  Although this attachment may become pathological in separation anxiety disorders, positive human-canine bonding allows us to use physical praise for positive reinforcement when rewarding desirable behaviours.

Emotional learning

We must remember that emotions are REWARDING or AVERSIVE for the individual but never neutral, noted Dr. Fisher.  Positive emotional states are associated with successful learning outcomes, whereas fear and stress will detract from the ability of a dog to learn.  When evaluating a dog’s ability to learn, we can look at five specific factors: Arousal, Motivation, Behaviour, Consequence, and Resilience.

Arousal refers to the level of attention and focus based on an individual dog’s physiology and psychological state.  Optimal levels depend on the task we are asking of the dog.  Simple tasks can be performed at higher levels, while more challenging tasks will be performed more successfully at low arousal levels.

Motivation is influenced by genetics, emotions, and the situation in which the dog finds itself.  When these factors are maximized, an individual dog is more likely to exhibit a specific behaviour.  Individual dogs may be motivated by food, toys, and praise (verbal and physical).

Specific behaviour a dog exhibits is based on previous learning and situational arousal and motivation.

Consequences of the behaviour relate directly to our response to the dog’s actions. We can choose to respond through positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment (See chart 1).  Positive reinforcement has been clinically proven to provide the best communication for the promotion of positive emotions and long-term memory when teaching dogs new behaviours.  Clients need to understand that they can inadvertently increase undesirable behaviour with inappropriate responses.

Resilience refers to a dog’s ability to maintain emotional stability in the face of different stressors and heightened arousal.  Breed differences and individual factors based on socialization and experience exist within dogs that affect their resilience and ability to learn.

Chart 1:  Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment


ADDING a reward to INCREASE behaviour

Food, positive physcial touch, verbal praise


REMOVING anaversive stimulus to INCREASE behaviour

Ear pinching in traditional retriever training


ADDING a punishment to DECREASE behaviour

Electric collars, physical correction


REMOVING a reward to DECREASE behaviour

Turning your back on the dog, taking away a chesished toy



Behaviour modification, with an understanding of canine emotional learning, is the cornerstone in the management of undesirable behaviours.  Although it requires client commitment and consistency, positive reinforcement will allow signaling to the key senses of olfaction and touch, teach the dog focus and calm, and promote a positive cognitive bias.  The client must avoid punishment, which in turn decreases arousal in negative emotional states.  These successes allow for the development of resilience.  Pharmaceutical interventions, synthetic pheromones, and nutraceuticals can be used to facilitate focus and learning in coordination with behaviour modification.  Dr. Fisher emphasized that any medical problems, such as orthopedic pain or dermatological conditions, should be treated in conjunction with the behaviour treatment plan. CV