Monday, February 7, 2022

Mapping Emotions with Core Effect Space

Understanding Core Effect Space

Core Effect Space is a rather “nerdy” science-based way to look at how we interpret what our dogs are feeling. I know everyone here is not the science nerd that I am so I’m going to attempt to make this easy to understand so that all dog owners everywhere can learn to use this science to improve their relationship with their dog.

Our basic map starts with creating sections based on two sets of criteria. At all times our dog is somewhere between a Calm mental state and an Excited mental state. They can move up and down the purple line based on the activities we are doing with them. At the same time, they can also move sideways across the comfort line, moving back and forth from Unpleasant to Pleasant in the environment we are currently in. This is how we break the map up into four quadrants or sections that all the emotions will fit in.

Before we can start mapping emotions, we need to talk about “What emotions do our dogs really feel?” This is kind of a loaded question because science and anecdotal information (what owners report) doesn’t really line up clearly. There is a reason for that!  Science, as much as I love it, must involve proof and the control of being able to repeat the experiments in exactly the same way over and over again. Whereas owner reports involve a wider group of dogs but lack but lack consistent experience so it’s hard to state conclusions as fact. We simply don’t understand exactly what our dogs are thinking all day long! We can only give an educated guess based on the previous experiences we’ve had with our dogs. The better the partnership we have with our dogs, the better we are able to read their emotions.

Scientific researchers have developed a list of basic core emotions that are believed to be present in children of two years of age and in our dogs:

  • Excitement or Arousal
  • Distress
  • Contentment
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Joy
  • Suspicion or Shyness
  • Affection or Love

No one is saying that these are the only emotions that dogs can feel or understand because emotions can be developed based on knowledge and experiences. This is the same for people and dogs! So we will use these basics as a place to start our map of understanding.

Understanding how emotions move on our quadrant map.

What is in our environment often affects the emotions our dogs are feeling and just how extremely they are feeling them. So, right where our lines intersect become our neutral area or comfort zone where we would like our dogs to be all the time. Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, therefore we can’t expect our dogs to be perfectly centered all the time either.

First, we are going to look at adding resources to our environment or activities we are doing with our dogs. Resources can be in the form of reinforcement, enrichment, found naturally in the environment, and social activity.  When we add resources to our environment, we help our dogs move from feelings of unpleasantness to feeling more pleasant. With the addition of resources, our dogs also move their enthusiasm level up from calm towards excitement. So, if our goal is to remain near the center, we would want every experience to be pleasant and rewarding while being exciting but not too exciting.  Again, we don’t live in a perfect world and, therefore, we can’t deny that pain is a part of our dog’s life. As Force Free or Positive Reinforcement Trainers, we make a commitment to not causing our dogs pain or using intimidation methods to get results. But that doesn’t mean that our dogs will never experience pain or fear of pain.

Our goal then is to do our best at keeping the levels of discomfort to a minimum for our dogs. We may not be able to stop an off-leash Fido from invading our space and causing pain, but we can avoid taking a fearful dog to a dog park or location where there are lots of other dogs present. This is what I mean by keeping discomfort and pain to a minimum.  So, if we start in a calm, pleasant state, any time pain is added, our dogs will move to the left and up our map towards unpleasant excitement. This top left section is where bad things happen and our dogs present behaviors that we as people really don’t like. In my partnership, team-based approach with my dogs, I want to avoid this section as much as humanly possible.

Now this image might begin to look familiar! If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I push for Positive Reinforcement Training with all animals. So, let’s dive in and see if we can expand our understanding of how these sections fit into our map.

+R = Positive Reinforcement (the top right quadrant)

When our dogs are doing a behavior we like, we add reinforcement. Any time a dog receives reinforcement, if delivered correctly, the behavior increases or happens more frequently. This is where trainers like me can help you learn ways to GET MORE OF THE BEHAVIORS YOU LOVE! I will also be doing some posts later in the month that explain reinforcement better.

-R = Negative Reinforcement (the bottom right quadrant)

When we take away something that our dog finds reinforcing, we do that for a few reasons, but mainly because we want to see certain behaviors happen less. You can apply this to jumping, barking, pulling on the lead, etc. This doesn’t mean that we are punishing our dogs per se but that we are blocking their access to the reinforcement or removing the reinforcement.

Let’s take a look at pulling on a leash. Why do our dogs pull? Simple answer is because they want something! That might be a smell that’s up ahead, greeting another dog, or even the act of moving. As our dog’s excitement level builds, they tend to pull more and more. If we stop moving forward, which makes them stop moving due to the leash attachment, we are basically taking their reinforcement away. They can no longer reach the reinforcement they want and we just used -R.

This can easily become a punishing activity or we can use it in our favor. For example, Azul really wants to smell a tree a few feet away so he starts pulling toward the distraction. I, of course, stop walking before he reaches the distraction, and wait for his reaction. If he stops pulling and checks in with me, which also helps him bring his excitement level down to a level he can manage himself, I will take a few steps closer to where he can reach the distraction and release him to go sniff.

I can then add +R back into the mix by allowing him to sniff that distraction for as long as he wants to sniff. Repeating the -R over time will hopefully teach Azul that pulling is not the quickest way to reach what he wants and, with a little patience on his part, he can have what he really wants.

+P = Positive Punishment (the top left quadrant)

This is often the result of using -R incorrectly and is commonly the theme for dominance based trainers that use force to teach a dog what NOT to do instead of trying to teach the dog what to do. Simply put, +P is adding pain to the situation. We could discuss all the tools that we know work based on pain, but that is not the lesson for this blog. Instead, we are going to focus on why +P works to change behavior quickly and why it can also have emotional fallout in our dogs. For a moment, let’s take humans out of the equation so that we are not thinking about forced pain from people.

Instead, let’s look at two dogs that are playing until, suddenly, they are not playing, and one dog applies pain to the other dog in the form of a pinning to the ground or biting. The second dog in this example is experiencing pain and therefore will stop doing whatever behavior they were doing just before the pain started. A dog in this quadrant might start out being scared but slowly moves toward more severe behaviors the longer they stay in the unpleasant and the higher stimulated they become. This is where the emotional turmoil often sets in; when the dog receives pain, stops the behavior, yet the pain doesn’t always go away. Sometimes the behavior gets worse, the pain lasts longer, or the triggers become the predictor for future pain.

Going back to the example of two dogs playing until one stops playing and bites. If this is repeated a few time, the dog being bitten will often associate all unknown dogs with dogs that will hurt them and therefore become reactive, lashing out at all dogs they see before they get attacked. Dogs quickly learn that barking and lunging at threats will create space and often keep that threat out of their bubble. This common fear reaction happens frequently when dogs are in the +P quadrant too frequently.

-P Negative Punishment (the bottom left quadrant)

This one is confusing to our human mind because we typically jump to all punishment is negative. That is not what this quadrant is referring to. In this case, -P is taking away something the dog finds punishing. This is easiest to understand when we think of it with Cooperative Care. Nail trimmings, for example, might cause a dog to be fearful, so clipping their nails becomes +P and just seeing the tools can send the dog into a spiral of unsafe emotions. But, when we work to make the nail trimming tools less scary by pairing them with awesome reinforcement, we start removing the pain/punishment associated with the tools. We use desensitization and counterconditioning methods to reduce the punishment our dog is experiencing, often based on past trauma with the tools at some point.

Since it’s so hard to determine whether certain things are +P or -P for our dogs, this quadrant is rarely used by trainers except for when we are looking at cooperative care.  But we can learn to use this effectively to change our dog’s emotions or bad feelings to good feelings over time.

How do we apply this knowledge to our dogs?

There are some graphics that outline where emotions fit on this map. But those are generalized to most dogs and will vary from dog to dog. This is where the help of a Behavior Consultant can be a great resource for owners. Even trainers with years of experience have times when they are too close to a situation and may need fresh eyes on something that is happening. I know that I have other friends and trainers that I need to reach out to when I can’t figure a problem out.  There is a common quote that refers to kids but also applies to dogs … “It takes a village to raise them!” The more people that you have in your corner, the better you will be able to develop the partnership you want with your dog.

A good Behavior Consultant can evaluate the problems you are having, identify a training plan designed to address the problems, and get you started on the path to building a better partnership with your dog. If you’re interested in this, I am offering a free virtual evaluation meeting this month as part of my February Theme: Focus on Behaviors!



  1. another question on this subject, which is the right way to help your dog to not fear like for intents fireworks on 4th of July, cause I unsure how to help Dakota in this area like last 4th of July my boyfriend and I tried to just stand outside why the boat docks had people shooting some off and she freaked out, or like were I live we get a train that comes throw and that scars her just the sound, I would like to have her not fear these things this year it going to be her second time of hearing like the fireworks on 4th July. Since this is in the topic of emotional I figure maybe I'm not doing something right last year that I so want to see improvement this year before July Comes and the train well that comes unexpectedly at times.

    1. Fireworks can be very tricky same as any unexpected sound. The trick is to start really small and really far away. You can start to desensitize by playing sudden sounds on your tv, computer, or phone at a low volume and slowly increase the volume. Make sure you are providing a high level reinforcement every time a loud noise happens. You can practice with all kinds of loud sounds, not just fireworks in general. But when it comes to the "real deal" with sudden noises outside, you want to be far away and have extra valuable reinforcement at the ready. Be prepared to stay in your car which will dampen the sound some, and also be prepared to leave after a few bangs if your dog is struggling too much. Contact me for more help.


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