Hardwired to Focus on the Negative

by Denise Mazzola, CPDT-KA

I think the question I get asked the most is, “how long do I need to use treats?” and my answer, “how long do you want to get paid for working?”

Humans are stingy.

Scientists have shown that humans are hardwired to remember the negative. When we were dragging clubs and slaying dinosaurs, we needed to remember the negative, it was about survival. If we forgot where the dinosaurs lived, we might walk into its cave and be eaten. Even today, to a certain extent, we need to remember the scary or negative things for survival, but not like humans did thousands of years ago. However, our primitive brain still focuses on the negative. This can be detrimental when working with dogs (and children).

When my three daughters were young, it seemed all I would do was focus on the negative: “Please hang up your coat, put your toys away, how many times do I have to ask?” You get the picture. Then I took parenting classes (yes, parenting classes from Bonnie Harris in Peterborough). I was training myself to focus on what they did right! Seems so basic, but what a challenge. I posted notes on the refrigerator (thankfully the kids couldn’t read), reminding myself to tell them what I wanted and when they did it, to give specific praise.

For example: “Thank you for putting your toys away when you were done playing. I really appreciate it.” The most amazing thing happened; they put their toys away more often when I was specific about praise. It was a bit shocking, but amazing all at the same time. We don’t need to remember or focus on the negative with our dogs or children in order to survive.

Just as we are hardwired to remember the negative, so are our dogs, because they are functioning from their primitive brain much more often. They are always determining what place or situation is safe for them and what isn’t.

For example, when the puppy I was working with caught her paw in a door, she was then very hesitant about passing through any other door. She had instantaneously determined that doorways were not safe.

Sometimes people lose their dogs and spend hours calling them, then they make the mistake of yelling at them, scolding them, or doing something else that, from the dog’s perspective, is negative and/or scary. Fairly quickly, the dog determines that coming when called is not safe and will not come to you the next time.

I once had a client tell me that he expected his dogs to come when called because he fed them and put a roof over their heads. I politely explained that dogs do not feel appreciation, nor do they manipulate us. They would rather come when I called them, even though I didn’t regularly feed them or house them, because I was generous with my treats in both quality and quantity.

Being generous with your dogs during and after training is similar to being specific with your praise. We need to focus on what our dogs are doing right and consciously reinforce those behaviors. By doing this we’ll get more of those wanted behaviors.

Be specific; if you really liked the dog’s behavior, be generous with the liverwurst. If it was just okay, then deliver just one piece of a crunchy treat. If the dog ran one hundred yards to get to you, you better empty the refrigerator on him. You will get more of what you generously reinforce.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of Denise Mazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been training dogs and people for over 25 years. Everything Dog provides services to clients throughout the Monadnock Region of NH by offering private lessons, group classes, board and train, as well as day training services.

Denise has been published in the trade journal, Chronicle of the Dog, and writes a monthly column for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript. She also hosts a monthly “Ask the Trainer” radio show on WKBK. Denise lives in Keene with her life and business partner, Amy Willey CPDT-KA, and they share their home with three dogs and three daughters. For more information, visit www.everythingdognh.com.

Denise Mazzola

Denise Mazzola


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