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A Guide to Canine Emotional Regulation

For complex beings—as dogs are—the development of emotional regulation skills is indispensable to one’s ability to successfully control the intensity and duration of emotional expression, lessening problems with impulse reactions.

Note to the reader: This article has been edited on the 5-October-2023. We thank those who provided valuable feedback to this article and encourage others to do so.

What is Emotional Regulation?

As an owner or dog trainer, you may have heard or read about the term "emotional regulation". The concept, which was first observed in humans, especially young children, eventually expanded, allowing the principles to be applied to further research studies of other species, including the behavior of dogs.

So, what is emotional regulation? According to Gross in a 1998 article, emotional regulation skills include how individuals influence their emotional expression, duration, and intensity. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and can have effects at one or more points in the emotion-making process.

In other words, it is a self-discipline process that moderates one's own emotions and emotional response to the individual's environment—including a dog’s—to be socially acceptable. Impulse control and dog training play an essential role in how a dog regulates emotion and behavior.

The Impact of Emotions on a Dog’s Behaviour

Like people, some dogs have self-control issues driven by their own emotions.  In a state of emotional dysregulation, it's challenging to deal constructively with impulse control, and emotional responses may not be socially acceptable.

Scientific research has increased our understanding of the cognitive abilities of an adult dog's brain. By comparing human emotions with the emotional development of dogs, dog owners and trainers can more easily understand canine emotional processes and work with them more successfully in a kind and compassionate manner.

Similar to humans, there are complex psychological concepts and processes behind a dog's behaviour, including the activity of neurotransmitters and hormones. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, carry chemical messages in the brains and bodies of dogs, creating physiological responses to emotional conditions such as joy, fear, excitement, and pain. 

Poor self-control and behavioural issues can arise from the strong influences of high emotional arousal. Negative emotions are a normal part of life. However, the dog's behavior and emotional responses to stimuli and environment affect their social competence and emotional well-being.

What is Emotional Valence?

Valence refers to the pleasantness or unpleasantness of an emotional stimulus. Almost all experiences can be classified on the valence scale as more or less positive, attractive, neutral, negative, or repulsive. For example, happiness is typically characterised by pleasant valence, whereas sadness or depression is considered unpleasant valence.

Previous research by Miiamaari V. Kujal from the University of Helsinki confirmed what dog owners have already observed - that dogs behave differently depending on the emotional situation and whether they perceive it as pleasant or unpleasant. The research demonstrates that dogs can respond appropriately to facial valence (facial expressions that show happiness, anger, or indifference) and distinguish between negative and positive ones, both in humans and in other dogs.

Emotional valence occurs in parallel with arousal, that is, with the strength with which emotion is expressed. For example, excitement is characterised as high valence, or a positive feeling, and generally comes with high arousal. On the other hand, sadness or depression is attributed to a low valence and a low level of arousal.

Happy Dog

How do Dogs Express Their Emotions?

A dog's behavior and use of body language and vocalisations communicate their emotions. Observing their behaviour can ascertain whether those emotions are positive or negative. Owners who recognise their dog's outward signs of emotion find it easier to train and engage with them. It also creates a supportive environment that affords the dogs a level of emotional security and validation that helps build a loving, trusting, secure attachment bond between humans and dogs.

Body Language

Dog Tail


A happy dog has a lowered and relaxed tail. If the arousal increases (for example, when the dog is happy and ready to play), they will wag their tail. The faster their tail wags, the stronger the arousal; tail wagging can occur with either positive or negative valanced emotions, which is why we should also observe other signs on the body.

The American Kennel Club suggests that the direction of tail wagging can be an indication of a dog's mood. A tail wagging more to the right (from the dog's perspective) indicates a relaxed, happy dog, while a tail wagging more to the left shows an anxious or nervous dog.

Dog Ears


There are several different ear shapes across the various breeds of dogs, some are designed to keep water out, and others are designed for acute hearing. Unlike us, dogs can rotate their ears to help pinpoint where a sound is coming from and readily use them to indicate their emotions. Distracted dogs might have one ear pointed toward their owner, and another pointed to something else that piques their interest.

Ears forward might indicate that dogs are trying to listen to a specific sound or focus on something; this is usually a sign of alertness. When the ears are erect but not pointing forward or are drooped to the side, this may indicate a relaxed state. Anxious or fearful emotions can often be associated with ears flattened backwards.

Dog Eyes


Eye contact is an essential signal for dogs, although we must take care with our use of eye contact as many dogs find direct eye contact from humans intimidating. Their eyes can be soft or hard, signalling either calmness and happiness or a negative state of mind. A fixed gaze, in which a dog stares intently at something, especially for a long time, usually signals a threat.

Dog Mouth


Happy and relaxed dogs tend to have soft mouths with relaxed facial muscles, the jaw either slightly open or lightly closed. When dogs experience anger or fear-based aggression, they may open their mouth to bare their teeth. In contrast, a worried or scared dog in a state of submission may keep their mouth closed.

An open mouth and panting signal the dog's capability to cool their body; the need to shed this excess heat may result from either strong emotions, environment, or exercise-induced heat. Both strongly positive and negatively valenced emotions create a metabolic response in the dog that quickly heats their body, which leads to panting.

Dog Posture


Posture looks at the carriage of the whole body; the American Kennel Club says that an easy-to-read aspect of dog body language is the play bow: dogs place their chest on the ground with their rump in the air to initiate play with other dogs and even people.

When experiencing fear or stress, a dog may hunch over to the ground, trying to appear smaller. Dogs that roll onto their back do so for various reasons; people often associate this posture with ‘belly rubs’, which may elicit a positive emotion in humans. However, it’s essential to understand that this posture may indicate extreme submissiveness, stress, and anxiety or be an attempt to create distance or reduce a perceived threat – such as changing a human's emotional state.

Dogs sometimes adopt a forward-leaning posture, making them appear larger than they are. Perhaps they are approaching something with interest. Alternatively, they could have aggressive intentions; clues are apparent when this posture is combined with other signs of aggressive body language.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence, first coined in 1990 by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, is defined as the ability to; understand and manage one's emotions and to recognise and influence those around you. Rational thought in response to emotional triggers is an executive function process that can be impaired during strong positive or negative emotional states.

Dogs are individuals and display various levels of emotional intelligence, which are affected by genetic and environmental factors. Alison Laurie-Chalmers, a senior consultant at Crown Vets, says a dog's brain processes language similar to a human's, with the right hemisphere processing emotion and the left processing meaning, suggesting they are biologically hardwired for some level of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence and emotional regulation go hand in hand. Several elements; emotion, valance, and the associated level of arousal – affect outward behaviours consciously or not. Building skills in emotional regulation through conscious, constructive behaviours leads to a high level of emotional intelligence and social acceptance.

Dogs have the ability to recognise and differentiate emotions in humans and other dogs. In a scientific study, they were found to have the ability to determine sadness as an emotion different from other feelings. Researchers have found that dogs are more likely to approach someone crying than someone in a good mood. Dogs approach sad or upset people with gentle, submissive behaviour. This proved that dogs could identify and recognise sadness as an emotion that differs from other feelings.

As emotionally intelligent beings, we must take the time to understand and validate our dogs’ emotions, caring for their emotional well-being and helping them increase their emotional intelligence by teaching them constructive reactions to emotions.

Emotional Reactions

Emotional reactions to environmental stimuli can be constructive, neutral, or destructive. A dog's level of emotional intelligence and ability to regulate its own emotions, combined with the training (deliberate or not) they have received, all play a role in how emotional reactions play out.

Dogs who are taught – often inadvertently – to suppress their communication can have strong, unpredictable emotional reactions. This is caused by their learned fear of expressing negative emotions. Suppressing communication, mainly when associated with negative experiences, is a potential indicator of high cortisol levels, which may lead to adverse outcomes for health and well-being.

Although there is a genetic aspect to a dog’s emotional intelligence, we can learn to identify the less constructive emotional reactions and help our canine companions by shaping more constructive, regulated and rational thought responses through trust and acknowledging their lower-level emotions. Dogs learn through repetition, and creating a safe haven to work through your dog's emotional problems can lead to better outcomes.

Less Constructive

Some of the less constructive behaviours that are associated with emotionally driven reactions are; freezing, barking, lunging, and growling. Although we don’t want to avoid suppressing their communication, we can look to antecedent events to determine what caused that reaction and implement a plan.

If the goal is to have an emotionally balanced dog, then we need to recognise that these behaviours tell us that our dogs need something to change. Watch their communication, think about what happened immediately before, listen to your dog, make a plan and take action that demonstrates care for their emotional well-being.

Still Dog


If a dog freezes or remains still, this is a sign that it is experiencing a high level of discomfort. In some cases, the situation may not escalate further, but it can also just be the calm before the storm. Kendal Shepherd, one of the UK's leading dog behaviour consultants, ranks freezing high on the 'Dog Aggression Scale'.

The freeze response is both neurological and emotional; if you notice your dog often freezes, it may struggle to regulate its nervous and emotional systems. Whole Energy Body Balance is an excellent modality for helping dogs calm their nervous systems and control their emotions.

Still Barking


Generally, barking is considered normal behaviour for dogs and is a means to communicate; however, it can be used in a socially inappropriate manner. There are numerous occasions in which dogs may choose to bark: to call on other dogs, to express their feelings, to defend their territory, or when trying to get their owner's attention. When barking occurs out of boredom, anxiety, fear, or when a dog wants to be left alone, it becomes a less constructive means of regulating their emotional state.

Still Lunging


It can be problematic for owners when their dog lunges at people, animals, or vehicles. Conversely, it can be terrifying for people or animals to be lunged at by a leashed dog. Lunging can be either deliberately aggressive or perceived as aggressive; thus, this behaviour is undesirable and potentially dangerous.

Fear is a common motivator in lunging cases, demonstrating a lack of emotional regulation. Dogs react impulsively while fearing someone or something might harm them. Excitement can also cause lunging; emotional regulation goes out the window when approaching a person, dog, or object, but because the leash prevents the dog from getting to the thing, they experience a sense of frustration and lunges towards the object.

Dog Growling


Just like barking, growling is a way for dogs to communicate vocally. Growling can show playfulness, so dogs often growl when completely relaxed in play with their owners or other animals. However, growling can also have the opposite meaning, too.

When growling occurs as a means to protect themselves from other dogs, to protect something they think belongs to them (e.g. a food bowl) or when injured and wanting to keep a potential threat as far away, it indicates the dog is experiencing fear-based aggression. It is vital in these situations to help the dog; seeking the assistance of a veterinarian behaviourist may be advisable. As discussed earlier, suppressing a behaviour such as a growl may lead to the escalation of fear-based aggression.

More Constructive ways to Deal with emotional reactions

The dog's ability to respond to emotional problems and self-regulate significantly affects their lives. Constructive responses are considered more socially acceptable and are better for the dog's well-being, maintaining a more regulated emotional and nervous system. This is a three-fold issue, where dogs must feel safe and secure with their caregivers, be allowed to think through problems in a safe environment (socialised) and subsequently be allowed to process those emotions. 

Importantly, this safe environment fosters a secure attachment bond between the dog and their owner. Securely attached dogs will be more inclined to feel safe in their exploration of novel events and their ability to feel emotionally supported. So, the groundwork for a strong emotional connection should be a priority when tackling the issue of emotional regulation.

Present Moment vs. Pre/Post Event 

There is merit in training behaviours that will help dogs and their handlers in present-moment situations, and some of those tools will be discussed in the later paragraphs. However, teaching dogs more constructive ways of reacting to emotions and improving their emotional intelligence to elicit more good behaviour responses comes from a deeper place. 

As mentioned above, the foundation work comes from the caregivers better understanding and responding to the emotional needs of their dog. Establishing skills in emotional regulation does not mean avoiding emotional triggers; rather, building secure relationships beforehand, using appropriate training techniques depending on the situation, and finally understanding and addressing the aftereffects on the body.

Owners can engage with a range of professionals who can aid them in better understanding the emotional needs of their dogs. For instance, WEBB practitioners specialise in helping with therapeutic emotional regulation; this is done through somatic relaxation, manual therapy and deepening the emotional connection between dogs and their caregivers. Perfect for building secure attachment bonds and helping process emotions after they have occurred.

Practitioners of the Trust Technique are also focused on listening to the emotional concerns of their animals. When animals feel that their emotions are taken seriously, they find that low levels of communication are necessary to meet their needs. This technique can also be used after an emotional event or to build a stronger connection, reducing the likelihood of emotional dysregulation occurring during events.

Furthermore, Canine Osteopaths take a holistic view of emotional wellness and consider the many aspects that contribute to dogs being able to regulate their emotions and helping their caregivers make changes that improve their lives. They may look at relationships, nutrition, exercise, enrichment, muscular-skeletal dysfunction, and assess for pain. Working on the premise that emotional balance comes from a place of needs being met, dogs are better able to regulate.

Many behaviourists can guide humans to understand better and meet the needs of their dogs. However, many still rely on forced compliance and emotional suppression, so ask questions about how they address emotional issues and expect to learn rather than ‘train’. Often, we humans are missing the cues our dogs are giving us.

The following paragraphs will examine how handlers can tackle emotional regulation in the heat of the moment.

Move away from the situation.

Moving emotionally charged dogs away from an object that has caused their dysregulation helps to lower the arousal level and allows the dog to regulate their emotions better. Adding distance deescalates problematic emotional reactions; thus, it is a more constructive reaction demonstrating a higher emotional intelligence level.

Dogs who can move away from these situations at their owner's request act with emotional self-control when acting from a place of trust – or fear, when employing emotional suppression techniques. Most dogs will take a tasty treat once they have moved away and begin working from rational thought rather than an emotional state.

Create a positive distraction.

Creating a positive distraction is considered a last resort option. There can be times when emotions are high, yet we need focus from our dogs. If allowing the dog to think through the problem or moving away is not an option, we may need to use a distraction to divert their attention. However, there are risks associated with this method – when used incorrectly, this can be perceived by the dog as their caregiver not listening to and meeting their needs.

For example, using treats or toys to draw or bribe dogs into a situation above their comfort level can negatively impact the relationship. If a dog needs to receive a treat to accept a pat, then we should ask ourselves – is the dog actually consenting to the pat, and how will that impact our relationship?

There may, however, be times when redirecting the dog’s focus to the owner or trainer in moments of high emotional stimulation is necessary, so it is a skill that is often trained. In this case, the dog must learn that the owner is high value even when exciting situations occur in the surrounding environment.

Dogs learn well with play and reward-based training; this training is vital to building a secure attachment with your dog. Secure attachment bonds are also closely linked with better emotion regulation. Play is one way to distract or redirect a dog's behaviour.

Emotionally regulated owners can further assist their dogs through co-regulation; when the owner distracts the dog from the stimuli, the dog's emotional state falls into sync with the owner.

Exercise or move in a rhymical pattern, such as jogging/trotting

Rhythmic movement can help regulate the nervous and emotional systems; jogging and trotting help build better-functioning brains. This involves many processes, and the nervous system is the leading player; it sends and receives messages throughout the body.

Once a gentle trotting rhythm has been created, the message travelling through the nervous system becomes more rhymical; the cardiovascular system increases blood flow to muscles and organs needed for exercise. After some time, the body will tire and require rest. The dog will generally relax and rest if perceived threats have been removed, activating their parasympathetic nervous system.

Exercise is excellent for the body and emotional regulation. Consider using canine fitness conditioning to help your dog build a better-functioning brain.

Dog Training and Emotions

Traditional Approach to Dog Training

Traditionally, dog trainers used to focus on changing dog ​​behaviour through the principles of operant conditioning. This approach presupposes a rational participant, but when it comes to emotions, reason often doesn't play too much of a role—especially regarding high emotional arousal, which we discussed earlier.

Dogs trained by compulsion, coercion, and force, behave through fear or pain and suffer more stress and anxiety than those taught using kind authoritative, play and reward-based methods that shape desired behaviours. Previous studies have shown that cortisol is released into the dog's body through forced training. It's a stress hormone that alerts the body to danger, and high levels interfere with rational thinking.  

A person who trains a dog with force methods may think that their dog is obeying or calming down when, in fact, the higher frequency sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing the body for the fight, flight, freeze or fright response. The somatic nervous system (bodily awareness) has very little activity, and the dog experiences high levels of stress, which can cause them to freeze until the threat is gone.

Being in a state where the sympathetic nervous system is diverting all the blood flow to organs and muscles that help animals deal with fleeing or fighting is not the most optimal state for learning to occur. Repeated experiences of fear and emotional suppression can hurt dogs' physical and emotional well-being and may lead to unpredictable, aggressive behaviour.

Training a dog to cooperate with us and giving them a level of autonomy to make good choices helps them to form attachments, improving their happiness, alertness, focus and ability to regulate their emotional and nervous systems. Therefore, it’s essential to understand our dogs' emotional states and needs. We can help them learn emotion regulation skills that improve their emotional intelligence and social acceptance.

Why Emotional Regulation Matters in Dog Training

Earlier, we mentioned the role of neurotransmitters and hormones in the process of feeling emotions, thus showing the correlation between body chemistry and the nervous system and emotions. Besides, we know from our own experience that strong emotions are difficult to control, so why expect our dogs—especially puppies—to have this ability?

If the problematic behaviour we are working on comes from an emotional state (of positive or negative valence), then attempts to solve such inappropriate behaviour without addressing the emotions that created it will be ineffective.

Ignoring a dog's emotional state during training can create new problems and make training slower and more strenuous. Dogs who feel good, are engaged and are not strongly influenced by emotions and hyperarousal concentrate more easily and learn quickly. On the other hand, dogs who are overwhelmed by the force of any emotion don't retain information well because they cannot concentrate on learning in the emotional state they are in.

Dog Training

Assisting Dogs with Emotional Dysfunction

Adequate exercise contributes significantly to emotional health. Dogs that don't have this basic need met can develop frustration and channel it into inappropriate destruction, barking, hyperreactivity and aggression. Canine Fitness is a great way to engage your dog's body and mind. Static exercises may help improve impulse control as these behaviours require duration and the ability to self regulate.

Adverse health and well-being effects can manifest in dogs who have trouble regulating emotions and state of arousal. Shifting their nervous systems into the parasympathetic system, where rest, digestion, and self-repair occur more readily, can be difficult for dogs with emotional dysregulation issues such as severe or separation anxiety and phobias. Bodywork that focuses on calming the nervous system, such as Whole Energy Body Balance, is a great way to help dogs with emotional regulation. 

Bodywork performed by suitably qualified canine therapists can be used in conjunction with other professional help, such as a veterinarian behaviourist, who can prescribe and monitor any necessary medication and work with owners to modify behaviours. Increasing a dog's ability to self regulate leads to more good behavior.

Assisting dogs with emotional dysfunction often takes time, patients, kindness, and a multimodal approach. Every dog owner or trainer should help their dogs to develop self-control over emotions and minimise impulsive acts. The key elements to improving emotion regulation are; time, secure attachment, knowledge, skill, planning and adequate support. 

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