The SEEKING system – a fascinating core emotion

This week’s topic takes off from last week’s post on improving animal welfare by integrating two models of emotions, and is all about the SEEKING system.

If you don’t have six minutes, here’s the major take-home message:

  • SEEKING is a multi-purpose emotional system that helps animals find resources
  • SEEKING is about expectation
  • We do animals a disservice by serving food in bowls rather than engaging the SEEKING system
  • If we’re not offering acceptable SEEKING opportunities, animals may engage in unwanted behaviour instead
  • Clicker training engages the SEEKING system, which explains the focus, energy, ease of learning and retention typically seen in clicker-trained animals.

The webinar replay that I mention at the end of the video is no longer availabe, unfortunately.

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19 Replies to “The SEEKING system – a fascinating core emotion”

  1. It is not the clicker that activates the seeking system. Rather what is known as Shaping within the Operant Conditioning paradigma.

    1. Actually, the SEEKING system is the most activated by conditioned reinforcers rather than primary reinforcers; we would expect a larger dopamine-response when using clickers than when just giving food (a higher activation of the SEEKING system).

      During shaping, the animal’s SEEKING system is also engaged. I’d expect it to be more engaged when using a clicker during shaping than when not using an obvious marker signal.

      1. Good evening, I love your videos … I have a question with regards to dogs urinating when you get home (excitement) and dogs that eat quickly/fast. What happens in the brain for this action to kick in? TIA Susan

        1. Susan, urination-when-in-high arousal is associated with an activation of the sympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomous nervous system), and I suspect different individuals to more or less easily lose control of the bladder in such situations.

          Dogs eating quickly I’m guessing may have some learning history of having to compete for food? I don’t have any practical experience in dogs myself, but I’m told that it’ a good idea to feed puppies separately to avoid that.

      2. A wistle will acchieve the exact same result.Many scientifi studies have tried to demonstarate the higher effinciency of the clicker so far only one has proven higher resiatance to extinction and the author was a student of K.Pryor. Other studies performed on horses,sheep, goats and dogs failed to highlight any special performance.As I said in my previous message the “power” it’s operant conditioning that does the trick.By the way Karen Pryor many years ago suggested that the sound of the clicker had some special powers that promoted faster learning and promised scientifiic proof to back up her claim.Regretably to date we are still waiting.

    1. What we know from laboratory studies is that conditioning depends on the uniqueness of the stimuli that are paired. If you use a spoken word, I would make one up or use a word that’s not used in normal language. There was one study showing that the clicker was more effective than using “good” – but “good” is a common word that could be used in other contexts. IN another study the clicker was compared to “brava” and then there was no difference.

      That it’s not heard outside the pairing context is one thing, but that it’s exactly the same each time is also important to get maximum conditioning. For this reason I would perhaps use a tongue click rather than a spoken word.

      1. “Conditioning depends on the uniqueness of the stimuli that are paired” Thats correct and that is why the seeking system is the most activated by conditioned reinforcers uniqueness of the stimuli being the key .The clicker is effective because of it’s uniqueness but a whistle can achieve the same results and be a better bridging stimuli as it can -unlike the clicker- be played from the moment the behavior is performed to the moment the primary reinforcer is delivered.

  2. Sounds interesting, but how does one feed cats in a”seeking” way with raw food (I make my own – using chunked or ground meat)? Really don’t want to put it anywhere other than in a bowl /plate that I clean up afterwards

    1. hmm… do a search for “cat puzzle enrichment” and see if you find something that inspires you..! Some sort of device that contains the food and that needs a bit of work on part of the cat to retreive it.

      1. Hi Katrina,
        I have a VERY active cat. When we got him (as a rescue, almost choked and starved by a fox snare around his neck) he was too afraid to go outdoors. So I built “castles” with little boxes, egg cartons and toilet paper rolls and hid treats in them. He had to go search for them and get them out with his paws. I am sure you could hide raw food in something like that. Sure, I had to rebuild quite often, but we got him past that first winter without anyone loosing their sanity. Even now (he is outdoors a lot now and is an avid hunter) he gets his breakfast in a special kong for cats. The top is hollow plastic with a small hole in the base. It gets screwed on a weighted base with a rim so you fill the food in there. It’s meant for kibbles, but if you form little clumps with the raw meat I’m sure you could use it for raw feeding as well. The cat has to roll and dip it, so the food will fall out of the hole.

    2. I hide the plates in the kitchen, bathroom, utility room etc under egg cartons or just any carton so my cat can find it and has a bit of work to “unwrap” the plate… Not the same spot every day…

  3. How to arrange a foodseeking environment to a chinchilla? Her only food, except hay is small pellets? I used to have rats. It was easier…

    1. Dear Maria,

      I’d arrange for her to have to “work” to get access to both hay and pellets. Pulling strands of hay through a device with small holes in it? I know some people have tested drilling holes into a piece of nontoxic wood and then wedging food in the holes; then the animal needs to gnaw to open the hole enough to access the food. I’m not too familiar with chinchillas, do their teeth grow? if so, that might be a good idea to help them keep them in check. If not, I’d be more careful. Good luck! 🙂

      1. Not sure if this will get to you now
        The JW Hollee Roller is a ball shaped cage that you could easily stuff the hay and pellets inside for the chinchilla to forage out……JW have a variety of Holle toys that would suit

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