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September 12, 2011

Stick with me, kids, while dipping into cognitive psychology, because the brain retraining touted in this book mirror and helped me better understand the dog relaxation protocol.

You are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, and Rebecca Gladding, MD, outlines a method used to help people recover from things like:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Addictions
  • Eating Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders

best dog blog, champion of my heart, photo of dog with bookAnd, as a card-carrying “emotional eater” and lifelong anxious girl the concept intrigued me when the hard-workers at Tandem Literary Publicity and Marketing first contacted me about the book months and months ago. We first connected over this dog book review: Marcus of Umbria. (Sorry, gals, it took me so long to read and write about the book.)

Doing Ourselves No Favors

Basically, we get into trouble when try to squelch upsetting life events (real or otherwise) by doing things to make ourselves feel better, at least temporarily. For some, that’s having a drink. For others, perhaps it’s turning light switches on and off 50 times to ward off bad luck.

Often these upsetting things also breed lots and lots of negative thoughts (likely nowhere close to true), which trigger various impulses and lead to more unproductive behaviors. The more we do it, the more we need to do it to keep the “bad feelings” at bay.

This method combines cognitive therapy (making conscious decisions to change habits) with something called self-directed neuroplasticity. That’s where the brain re-wiring comes into play … just as it does in the dog relaxation protocol.

People who’ve suffered strokes or other injuries often “recover” when their brains reroute tasks to new pathways. The book’s theory is that we can use that process to our benefit in other ways.

A Little Brain Background

The authors explain how these two brain functions result in bad habits and in overcoming them:

  • Hebb’s Law: Neurons that “fire together wire together.” This means that when groups of nerve cells (or brain regions) are repeatedly activated at the same time, they form a circuit and are essentially “locked in” together. (p 63)
  • Quantum Zero Effect: Focused attention holds together and stabilizes brain circuits so that they can wire together by Hebb’s law. Once they are wired together, the brain will respond to similar situations in a reliable “hardwired” way. ( p 66)

The authors do a great job of taking detailed brain function and making it useful to a girl like me. For example, they talk about having an overactive Uh Oh Center to the brain and how that works with parts of the brain that drive habits and cravings.

Lies, Damn Lies

The authors also go on to explain how much of what we think and feel is utterly and completely false. Essentially, our brains are lying to us a good deal of the time and probably have been since childhood — poor socialization, anyone?

They do not promise the thoughts or feelings will go away … only that if readers work through the four steps that they’ll better cope and be more constructive in response.

Just like with our fearful dogs, we may never be able to make the fears go away, but we can help our dogs develop better coping skills and more productive reactions / actions in the face of triggers.

Here are the four steps the book explains in detail:

  1. Relabel – recognize and identify when the pattern starts
  2. Reframe – change perspective on the thoughts, feelings, situation (There goes my brain again.)
  3. Refocus – deliberately move your focus toward a productive activity or mental process (Rather than falling back on old habits, which only solidify current brain pathways … work at forming new ones)
  4. Revalue – dismiss sensations rather than focus upon them

Dog Relaxation Protocol Comparison

So, how does this apply to dogs? Well, think about it. Every time a fearful dog behaves in a certain way toward a stimuli it further solidifies the patterns in the brain and the automated reactions (acting out, barking, lunging, biting). Especially dogs like Lilly, who focus on “scary” things with such intensity, the more dogs obsess over scary things the scarier they get.

That’s why the WATCH ME cue is so important. It helps dogs refocus.

Let’s look at the dog relaxation protocol.

  • Ask the dog to sit and stay.
  • Expose dog to various stimuli.
  • Reward the dog for choosing to remain sitting (and focus on us), rather than react.
  • Release the dog.
  • Repeat the process.

I’ve always wondered about the repetition in the dog relaxation protocol. Trust me, it’s tedious, but the more we practice the more we create NEW pathways in Lilly’s brain so that she has a more functional activity (as a default) in the face of anything she deems scary.

That’s Hebb’s Law and the Quantum Zero Effect in action, friends.

Pretty neat, huh?

Be Your Dog’s Wise Advocate

The book explains how people can become their own “wise advocate” in life … by sorting through all the noise in our heads and hearts so that we can make better decisions and take better care of ourselves.

In dog training, especially with fearful dogs, we are our dog’s wise advocates.

Firing My Brain

So, amid this latest family medical crisis, which is just the latest one in a string that began more than two years ago, I’ve been trying to recognize and refocus myself in the face of the scary things in my life.

An example might be that RATHER than getting high-calorie, gooey Mexican food on my way home from the ICU as either “reward” for getting through the day or simply to make myself “feel better” from the emotional drain, I might plan ahead and make sure a healthy dinner is already in the crockpot so that I’ll be less tempted. And, perhaps, I squeeze in a walk during the long day at the hospital to burn off some of the negative energy and thoughts.

The Hard Part

The tough part of all this, as a friend who has tried cognitive work without much luck pointed out, is that sometimes what you think and what you feel is doggone real.

My mom now has TWO fatal health conditions. Two.

So, in the face of strong emotions, the authors suggest asking yourself what a “reasonable person” would feel or do in the same situation.

This became a bit of an inside joke between me and my sister during our mom’s recent ICU stint. Once in a while, we convinced ourselves that indeed a reasonable person would get that gooey, comfort food.

Just like with Lilly’s many fears, I cannot promise I won’t react in long-used ways, but after reading this book … at least I’ll recognize what I’m doing and sometimes make better decisions for my own health and comfort.

The goal is to get through even the tough days ahead with my ultimate goals and true self at the forefront. I’m pretty sure my true self is a chocoholic, but you get the idea.


FTC Disclosure: I received a free, review copy of the book from Laura Rossi Totten from Tandem Literary Publicity & Marketing. I was not compensated in any way for this book review.

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. This sounds like a book I should read. I have a hard time recognizing patterns in my own head, but I see some of the stuff that stresses my son. Sounds like there’s good information here that could help me to help him when he’s feeling over-anxious. Thanks!

  2. This strongly reminds me of the reading that I’ve done about meditation and its role in rewiring the brain to deal with pain. I’d never taken those concepts beyond coping with my own pain until I just read your review. Now I can see that a similar bad rewiring is underway in R’s head when he’s in an excessively obsessive phase (like right now). I haven’t been feeling well and my husband doesn’t have time to work with R so we’ve just been letting him be obsessive (we’re being bad guardians, I know). Your review points out to me that our laissez-faire attitude is not only a pain in the butt right NOW as we put up with his crazy behavior but will make his obsessive behaviors worse in the future as the wiring gets stronger.

    I think that I need to read that book. Thanks.

  3. This is a great post. I love the comparison you make between training dogs and re-training our own minds.

    I think positive dog training and CBT have everything to do with each other. Both are creating new default behaviors…just as a dog can learn to sit, rather than lunge on the leash and bark, when uncertain about what to do, we can learn to breathe and smile, rather than descend into anxiety, in times of confusion. Both choices buy us time to make good decisions, and re-train neural pathways to create new defaults.

    That said, the choice to go for the gooey Mexican food (or lunge and bark) is certainly understandable sometimes! So sorry about your mom. Sending you warmth and hope you’ll go easy on yourself and get the support you need too, while you provide so much support to those around you!

  4. What an excellent explanation of these ideas. Loved the way you could relate it to your work with Lilly.

    I’ll also point out that sometimes our brain lying to us is a good thing. I’ve read studies that showed most people overestimate their competence at their jobs. The only people who were realistic about their skills and accomplishments were the depressed people (which is really depressing).

    Anyway, happy people’s brains lie to themselves to convince them they’re better than they are. Unhappy people’s brains lie to them to convince them they’re worse than they are.

    Either way, being conscious and observant, as the book points out, is very important.

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