I have a seven year old boxer named Frodo. Boxers are awesome family dogs; smart, friendly, goofy and for the most part, non aggressive. Frodo anyways. He’s the kind of dog who will happily welcome in a burglar for tea then invite him to dinner. But Frodo has two pet peeves, mailmen and moving vehicles – both of which he loves to hate. There’s little that has the power to distract him from the chase of either. Not obedience school, not his age, not reward, not the local animal control lady.
The local animal control lady showed up last summer after Frodo got hold of the paperboy’s pant leg. She’d visited once before with probation papers so I cringed upon seeing her official looking truck pull into the cul-de-sac again. Frodo, of course greeted her like his long-lost sister which I wasn’t sure whether aided or impeded his case. But despite her official business, the animal control lady was more of a dog defense attorney than dog prosecutor and explained to me the very interesting psychology of why dogs chase certain things.
It hadn’t really occurred to me before that dogs have a specific ‘chase psychology’ but so it is. After repeated ignored warnings to the offender from behind a door or fence, given opportunity and fueled by indignation, the dog sets off in hot pursuit of his prey. He’s behaving instinctually, with a reward in mind. And, as it turns out, dog and human ‘chase psychology’ isn’t all that different.
Because really, man or mutt, who doesn’t love a good chase? I think of Neo chasing reality, Indiana Jones chasing the ark, Jason Bourne chasing his identity, the Dark Knight chasing justice, Adele chasing rainbows. We chase a lot of things money, recognition, the sun, each other, fun, dreams, material things, perfection, truth, happiness, tornadoes… Give us an alluring enough prey and we’ll chase it the same way a dog chases cars or cats or poor, unsuspecting paper boys. It seems like there’s something hard-wired into us to relish the chase.
And as I’ve been learning, there actually is something hardwired in that motivates and compels us – a heady mix of brain chemicals, most notably, dopamine. Dopamine has many functions in the brain, but it’s what drives us to pursue reward – sometimes not all that rationally.
I’ve made some regrettably poor decisions while on the chase. I pursued the improbable heart of a narcissist for seven years, though that was probably a little more psychologically complex. Once I bought seven computers in less than a month, which now seems inexplicably stupid. Not too long ago, I dropped fifty grand chasing a dream and failed. I have almost ten thousand beautiful, inspiring pictures saved on Pinterest that I likely will never use, but just collecting them gives a me jolt of something.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Dopamine has a chameleon-like quality that makes shifting from tangent to tangent very easy. Because it’s not the thing we’re chasing, it’s the feeeeeeeling.
Following the chase, serotonin kicks in rewarding us with feelings of satisfaction. But serotonin satisfaction is shorter lived, less intense and eventually drops off, leaving us with that ‘dip’ or ‘hole’ or ‘flat’ or ‘wanting’ feeling. This has been observed and studied in addiction, where the ‘wanting’ becomes as compelling as the high. And so the chase cycle repeats itself…
Abraham Lincoln very truly observed, ‘with the catching ends the pleasure of the chase’. Indeed. Buying those seven computers was far better than actually having them.
But I’m getting out of my field. Well actually I don’t have a field… But I have learned that knowledge is power, when it comes to understanding and managing what I do. Just last week I had an ‘aha’ moment observing the shift in brain chemicals after completing a creative project. The hunt was over, the satisfaction was brief, and mood drop was imminent. And just knowing that helped me deal with it in more positive ways.
If you’re interested in a more in-depth understanding of human nature, addiction and all that other psycho stuff, click on over and visit the blog of my very smart friend. Who I hope will redress any informational inconsistencies I’ve made here. 😉
In the meantime, I’m seeking out a certified animal behaviorist to deal with my very motivated dog.