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Five Facts about The Brains of Dogs and What They Can Teach Us About Ours!

What goes on in the mind of a dog ? Are there any similarities to the human brain? As a professional development coach, I do a lot of reading and make use of a number of Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques, so I decided it was worth looking into the matter. The results are both interesting and surprising !

1- A dog, regardless of its size or breed, has a brain no bigger than a tangerine!.

This is not at all to say that dogs are stupid! As a matter of fact.

2- A dog’s brain has over 530 million neurons (versus 820 billion in humans).

The cerebral cortex of a dog’s brain (the wrinkled outer layers of the brain) is much denser than other carnivores. A cat, for example, has only 250 million. According to neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Hanzel at Vanderbilt University, this high number “determines the richness of their internal mental state”.

3- One border Collie named “Chaser” was able to recognize over 1000 words and retrieve the corresponding objects.

Behavioral psychologists call this phenomenon “object permanence”, the ability to remember objects or people no longer in their field of vision. As opposed to humans, however, their memories are associative, not recall (or experience) based.

4- Dogs develop a sense of linear time much faster than infants!

For an infant, the present moment without a piece of candy, is an eternity without a piece of candy. Dogs however, like adults, have a certain degree of willpower, along with the capacity to anticipate future events much earlier than young children. Closed circuit TV cameras consistently show how a dog’s behavior changes in expectation of a future event such as the return of their owner at the end of a workday. It would appear that dogs actually “miss” humans, but this may be more of a belief than a fact. Although it is tempting to attribute all kinds of noble thoughts and feelings to man’s best friend, the fine line dividing instinct from emotion cannot be viewed on an MRI scan.

The cognitive abilities of a dog, however, are less of a mystery. According to Mr. Stanley Coren, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, even a clever dog will only develop cognitively to a level of a 2-year-old child.

5- Both the canine brain and the human brain produce brainwaves which are amazingly similar.

The difference lies in how much time each group typically spends in any given range. While both humans and dogs dream (Delta State), the latter spend most of their day in Theta. This range, from 4hz to 7hz (Hertz) is usually associated with a pleasant drowsiness. Adult humans, after a couple of cups of coffee (hopefully!) spend most of their waking hours in Beta (14-26hz). Think of a business person reading a newspaper article or engaged in a lively conversation.

Practical Applications for Coaching

While it is necessary and normal for adults to function in this range, spending too much time in the upper end of Beta (20 to 26 Hz) can have negative consequences on their physical and psychological health. Relaxation is difficult for these individuals. Their co-workers and loved ones find them tired and irritable. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep the brain functioning at this level. A minor incident such as a parking ticket can get them “triggered”.

Dogs are no less volatile. A canine catching sight of a squirrel, for example, would move from Theta to Gamma (27-84 hz) faster than Usain Bolt!

Now you may have heard the idiom, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” As a coach, I would challenge this “limiting belief” – it is never too late to learn anything. Nevertheless, I would concede the following:

You can’t teach a human (or a dog) in High Beta much of anything!

As a coach, I often begin working with clients who are under pressure and want to solve problems quickly. Like dogs chasing their tails, their reasoning goes in circles. Rather than try to analyze a situation (in Beta), I help them approach an issue with more awareness. How do they contribute to the reality of a complex situation?

I like to start a session by having the client relax with a few deep breaths. Simply following one’s inhalations and exhalations can quiet an overactive mind rather quickly. A calmer state of mind brings two tangible benefits to the body – the heart rate slows and the brain begins producing waves at an alpha rate (8 to 13 hz). This highly desirable state is conducive to relaxed focus and creative, out-of-the-box problem-solving. This is an excellent time to do some NLP exercises since positive beliefs take root in the Alpha state where meaningful change occurs.

I also encourage the women and men I work with to practice short mindfulness meditations. Although best done at the beginning or end of a day, they can be done almost anywhere, at any time. Regular practice, over time, pays its dividends in an overall increase in one’s well-being. Not surprisingly, people who are more in touch with their own feelings develop better empathy and rapport with those they live and work with.

Curious? I would be happy to discuss how I could facilitate any kind of change you would like to initiate in your professional or personal life. If I’m not immediately available, you might consider letting the Labrador up onto the sofa. You see, he’s also got a wide range of nonverbal communication and relaxation techniques that you’ve never….uhm….dreamed of!

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