Seeking system – What is it, why should you care, what’s important
I’m actually a little bit excited about this one, this is an amazing and cool subject and best of all, it applies heavily to us and is used everyday to get us to spend our hard-earned pennies – more on that later!
So firstly, what is the Seeking system?
This is the cool bit (thanks Jaak Panskepp the rat tickler!), because seeking is a core emotion and he’s the man for that.
If you stimulate the part of a dog’s brain that’s is responsible for seeking you will see the dog express exploratory behaviour.
Really cool bit! If a human has this part of the brain stimulated they describe feeling expectant.
Seeking is a mechanism that helps animals (humans included) to learn about their environments and you need to be able to do that so you can survive.
It increases attention and focus, influences foraging and exploratory behaviour and triggers orientation response. It helps animals map their territory, find resources and ultimately survive.
The seeking system gets you out of bed every morning and sends you off to work, in this your seeking money (quite unique we have a transferable reinforcement system) that money enables us to live amongst society, raise a family and if we are lucky enables us to do the things we like.
What determines the things we seek? Ultimately, we all have a core survival mechanism, we need food, we need water, we need shelter and we need to reproduce but beyond that we have an emotional brain, all mammals do, it has needs as well, it needs to feel safe, calm and relaxed.
We need play, we need to feel good, we need exercise, we need sensory data, we need to get away from fear, we need knowledge.
Knowledge? Yep we sure do, with knowledge we can navigate the path of life, with knowledge we can be more safe and secure, life can be easier. You’re reading this, that’s your seeking system driving your behaviour.
Why Should you care?
As I’ve said above we all have a seeking system, in human life ours is in overdrive, advertising and marketing is designed to manipulate it and target your brain chemistry, these industries have been exploiting behaviour modification for many years.
I mean who of you has an Iphone? When did you first get your Iphone and how many versions do you have? Do your old ones still work and fulfil the task you ask of them? I’m pretty sure Iphones have started a new obsessive behaviour!
You facebook addicts out there, you know the little dots that appear in messenger and now the little green dot to tell you someone is online, all designed to get you seeking, in this case the commodity is time, they want your time and they do a very good job getting it!
Some men change their entire life’s about for a ball! Seeking the results of the footie does some strange things to people, its something dogs and people have in common, ball obsession!
The important thing is that it never actually turns off, seeking increases and decreases in activity but it’s always active, that’s why a strange noise will wake you from your sleep or a dog with separation related issues might choose to get its deep sleep tucked under the feet of its owner or with some body contact. If it turned off, you wouldn’t wake for your alarm in the morning (wouldn’t that be nice!)
Now for dogs you evolved to take advantage of scavenging that desire is inbuilt and it’s also healthy. (I will never refer to a dog as a scavenger, I use the term opportunist because they will hunt, they will kill, and they will consume and they have the tools for it)
Seeking is driven by the neurotransmitter dopamine, this is a neurotransmitter that enables learning.
It brings the animal to the resource; the animal will learn what to do to acquire the resource and will also learn predictors about that situation.
So, a clicker for example is a predictor that something good is coming (and if you’re a good trainer, its coming within 0.4 of a second!!)
The interesting bit is that there’s two parts of this seeking system, the appetitive and consummatory.
Appetitive - this is the finding stage, trying to get to that resource
Consummatory - this is the stage that the animal has got the resource and is eating, drinking, mating for example
During the appetitive stage the brain dopamine is being produced and once switched to the consummatory stage the dopamine stops and rapidly declines.
These peaks and troughs in dopamine are great and promote learning. It’s healthy and it feels good, some might say bring a sense of euphoria.
What’s important is that you realise that seeking needs to happen, if it doesn’t have appropriate outlets, your animal will either find them itself or worse.
Remember that dog have 4 different sensory systems, sight, sound, touch and the all-important SMELL (you could count that as 2 in itself) there’s preference to different dogs and breeds but fundamentally if you have the tools you want to use them.
Enrichment activities, training and walks are all a healthy outlet for seeking, its far more desirable to earn your rewards than just have them handed out… well hang on…. If they were handed out they wouldn’t be a reward, would they?
There’s an interconnection between seeking and the emotional system, although not heavily researched it’s thought that the seeking system is also involved in the appetitive phases of the other emotional systems.
This certainly, rings true in my observations, if you’re scared you seek safety, if you have rage you seek a target, if you’re experiencing lust you seek a mate, if you experience grief you seek care or to give care, if you’re feeling playful, you seek play. Whatever way you look at it, seeking plays a major roll in behaviour, if it didn’t you wouldn’t have 10 iphones!
Unhealthy seeking, what if you seek something but its not there, your appetitive stage is producing dopamine but your consummatory stage can’t kick in. That’s a problem, look at OCD behaviours like light and shadow chasing and my biggest hate laser pens (please if your children have laser pens and you or anyone around you owns animals, I beg of you throw them away!)
Unhealthy dopamine production, when neurotransmitters transfer excessive dopamine dogs can become agitated, impulsive and easily reactive creating an excitatory response. When dopamine levels are to low, the dog becomes under reactive creating an inhibitory response.
What can you do?
I have no doubt that enrichment changes lives, but not just food toys, new food, novelty can be reinforcing. New smells, new places, anyone who has ever walked with me knows I’m a bit of a roamer, I don’t just take my dogs out for a walk, if they want to explore something then I tend to wander slightly from the paths and release my inner dog!
Problems solving exercises (now believe it or not I don’t expect your dogs to be as smart as this bird!)
Training, its huge, you can teach an old dog new tricks, in fact you should, old dogs can still form new neural pathways, they just die off quicker than young dogs, so more reason to build more.
Training gives a dog that all important knowledge, with that comes self confidence and a beautiful willingness that puts a smile on my face.
Scent work is great for dog and apparently horses! Many animals have far superior sense of smell than us humans.
I’m a huge fan of free shaping, or any shaping, its training involving problem solving skills and really gives that seeking system a work out, put your lures away and try some shaping.