Rewarding our dog brain….in a healthy way

What dogs can teach us about recovering from sex addiction and porn addiction

Last week I headed off for my regular walk in Regent’s Park before seeing clients in our London practice and, as I often do, I found myself watching and smiling at the antics of the many dogs enjoying their morning exercise.  Big dogs, little dogs, young and old, pedigree and mongrel, all so different, but in many ways, all the same.

As I was watching them I found myself thinking about MacLean’s triune brain.  First formulated in the 60’s MacLean’s model continues to be a popular way of understanding the different functions of the human brain. Whilst the hypothesis is not entirely accurate, the simplicity of the model is still a helpful way to understand human behaviour and in particular, the evolution of human behaviour. So, what has this got to do with dogs you may well ask?!!

The brain and addiction

In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a quick re-cap.  MacLean’s model splits the brain into 3 broad categories:

  • the ‘reptilian brain’, responsible for instinctual and survival behaviours
  • the ‘limbic system’, responsible for motivation and emotion
  • the ‘Neocortex’ responsible for complex functions such as language and rational thinking.

The limbic system is often referred to as the dog brain because, as we know, dogs are far more intelligent than reptiles, being capable of learning various skills and showing us how they feel, but they’re not as clever as us (or so we like to think!).  The dog brain is also the part of our brains where the reward system resides and hence the bit that goes awry when addiction takes hold.  As anyone who’s struggled with an addiction will tell you, whilst their neocortex is telling them they really shouldn’t act out, for some reason the message doesn’t get through to the dog brain which is telling them that seeking pleasure is the most important thing in the world and to hell with the consequences.

So back to Regents Park. There’s no doubt that dogs seek pleasure and they are great at showing it; rolling in the dirt, jumping in the fountain, chasing pigeons (and the occasional unlucky jogger) – fun comes first. But they also know when to come and how to heel, or at least, they do if they’ve been trained. And the most effective way of training a dog is to reward it.  Man’s best friend is so called because of the relationship we can build with them and it’s that relationship that motivates them to stop seeking doggy pleasures and seek the rewards of relationship.  As well as the sound of happy dogs, I heard the sound of happy owners, ‘good boy’, ‘well done’ and big smiles and lots of strokes. Dogs need affirmation and affection, starting from a new born pup right through to old age and guess what, so do we. If we want our dog brain to behave, then we can learn a lesson or two from our canine friends and learn how to reward good behaviour, not just punish the bad.

How to recover from sex and porn addiction

As many people know, getting into recovery can be hard work, and staying there can sometimes feel even harder. And in my experience, the most effective strategies for boosting motivation are words of encouragement, affirmation and as many positive strokes as possible. This is of course why group work and the fellowship found within 12-step is so important. Understandably in sex addiction you can’t always rely on the support of a betrayed or traumatised partner, but you can find support from others who know what you’re going through.  Trying to recover alone is tough, like dogs, we’re social beings and we need a pat on the back and to know we’re doing a good job.

One final doggy thought before I end this blog – do you remember that expression ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’?  Well anyone who has ever re-homed a rescue dog will tell you that’s simply untrue. It is never too late to be loved into a new way of life – and that is just as true for us as it is for our canine chums.