Can I Seek Please


The SEEKING system gives a pleasureable feeling when engaged in a task they enjoy e.g. Border Collies stalking behaviour.

Do our dogs have emotions? A question that has been argued for many years! American Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and his colleagues have spent many years researching this and have found seven basic emotions – SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC and PLAY.

Here we will look at the SEEKING system, being able to perform canine behaviour satisfies our dogs core emotions, promoting a relaxed happy dog. These days a lot of dogs are unable to perform these canine behaviours due to restraints of walls, fences and leads etc.

The SEEKING system is the area of the brain that urges us and all animals to explore the environment and seek the things we need to live a fulfilled life.

Our dogs have a built in instinct to explore and learn about their environment. Learning about their environment enables them to move around at ease and be efficient in finding what they require. It is the SEEKING system that motivates them to forage, explore, investigate and search for resources such as food, shelter and mates, hence satisfying their core emotions and helping them learn, predict and anticipate, increasing their chance of survival.

Do you think you and your dog enjoy the anticipation of something good more than the end result? When you were a child was the run up to Christmas, looking for your presents etc. more exciting than the day itself? There is now evidence that nerve cells in the SEEKING system are more responsive to anticipation of reward rather than receiving it.

Dopamine (a chemical in the brain that either increases or reduces the activity of nerve cells) fuels the SEEKING system promoting states of eagerness and directed purpose, a state we humans love to be in, we feel good when seeking out activities we enjoy, our dogs feel the same. The feeling experienced from finding something unexpected or new, the excitement and anticipation are all acitivated by Dopamine. These feelings can be more intense when the reward is unpredictable, encouraging us to want more and find more stimulation resulting in even more Dopamine being released into our brains. Hence how addictions occur, e.g. gambling, a person is more stimulated if they are not sure if they are going to win. According to Jaak Panksepp a sure way to drive an animal into a frenzy is to give very tiny bits of food sending the SEEKING system into hyperactivity.

Dopamine will stop working when things become predictable, the classic of dogs turning their nose up at the same old treats and it is inhibited when rewards are removed completely, is this why dogs stop doing things when rewards are suddenly taken away?

Is this why we sometimes see hyperactive treat or toy obsessed dogs?

Also is this why over treating, over rewarding, over luring and over cueing can work against us?

Is it possible to set dogs up to be frustrated and show anger during training when we teach them to expect something they really want and then withhold it too much of the time?

Once the SEEKING system has been turned on, the animal and us must have some form of fulfillment (consummatory behaviour) kick in for a reduction in arousal to be achieved and balance maintained.

Have we forgotten in our quest to keep dogs in a state of happiness to also keep them in balance?

A mentally healthy dog needs to be able to move back and forth between SEEKING and fulfillment.

Why should we be aware of the SEEKING system?

Becasue when the SEEKING system is turned on positive emotions are present, keeping negative emotions at bay by keeping the RAGE, FEAR and PANIC systems turned off.

A lot of behaviouir problems can occur from a lack of opportunity to perform strong innate behaviours. By providing our dogs with the outlet for behaviour which is natural for them we can switch the SEEKING system on, therefore satisfying their needs and not allowing the RAGE, FEAR and PANIC systems to switch on through frustration of not being able to act/succeed in what they have evolved to do. Remembering to make sure there is fulfillment for them at the end, through finding what they were seeking at the time and the need diminishing, balancing out the emotions is very important.

Examples of the SEEKING system in action:

Sniffing, exploring, investigating, having interesting things to do on long walks

Being hungry, dinner being prepared

Playing games

Playing with others

Picking the lead up to go for a walk

Teaching tricks


Clicker training – the click is a signal that a reward is about to come, therefore the sound of the clicker turns on the SEEKING system putting the animal into a pleasureable state of eager anticipation!

Further reading:

Affective neuroscience, the foundations of human and animal emotions – Jaak Panksepp

Reaching the animal mind – Karen Pryor

Making animals happy, how to create the best life for pets and other animals – Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson

About Silver Coast Angelic Dogs

English dog training and behaviour consultant based in Portugal. Special interest in human-canine relations and how they impact on a dogs everyday life.
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