I opened the door and called her name as I scanned the backyard. Normally my 30-pound Border Collie mix would be bounding down the hill in response to my call, energized from her chipmunk escapades. “Coby. Cooooo – beeeeee,” I yelled. A light wind rustled the rust-colored aspen leaves, but there was no other movement. My stomach tightened and I briefly thought the worst. Coyotes. Then I had a thought. I suppressed my twinge of concern, jumped in my car and raced up the road.
Earlier that morning Coby and I strolled up the road, wet from the early morning fog. The sunrise glowed pink and orange and framed silky clouds resting on the lake below. As we turned the corner, we approached a group of large granite rocks and I spotted a pile of trash with beer bottles, soda cans, and fast-food wrappers limp from the fog. Without hesitation, Coby dove right in. I snapped at her, “Coby, no!” Licking her lips, she popped up and ran to my side, forming what I am sure was a large, satisfying grin.
The sight and smell of food initiates a cascade of hormonal responses in our body. These hormones trigger an intense desire for food and a strong motivation to seek and devour food. Dogs share this physiology with humans and Coby’s impulse to dive into the trash was a normal physiologic response to the fragrant pile.
In my car, I slowly approached the granite rocks for the second time that morning and spotted a black tail with a white tip wagging above the Manzanita bushes. Her head buried in the trash, Coby didn’t flinch when I pulled up beside her.
“Coby. Co – bee. No,” I shouted as I jumped out of the car.
Her head snapped up and a limp hamburger bun hung from her mouth. She stared at me. I stared back at her. Neither of us moved. I squinted my eyes and created my most menacing angry-at-my-dog face.
“No. Drop it. Come.”
Silent and still, she stood frozen with the bun dangling.
The oldest part of the brain in both dogs and humans is called the primitive brain, commonly referred to as the reptilian brain. This part of the brain is buried deep in our skull and is responsible for our survival instincts. Our reptilian brain controls our fight-or-flight response, drives us to desire sex, and motivates us to find food. For millions of years the primitive brain has kept us alive with immediate and automatic reactions to danger and food. We have been hardwired to search out high-calorie food, gorge on high-fat high-sugar food and defend this food to ensure our survival. Coby’s primitive brain was in action, creating an intense desire to seek out this food and a fierce motivation to devour the food before someone, or something, tried to take it away.
Have you ever found yourself in the freezer section of the grocery store looking at fancy ice creams when not only are you not hungry, you had only hours earlier promised yourself that you would not eat sweets for a month? That was your reptilian brain at work, driving you to search for high-fat high-sugar food. Have you had the urge to stab a friend’s hand with your fork when she reached for your last French fry? That was your reptilian brain at work, defending your last bite of food. Our most irrational thoughts are derived from our reptilian brain, which is operating as if we are hunter-gatherers. Our food environment has changed rapidly over the last one hundred years, while our brain has been slowly evolving over the past two million years. Our primitive brain doesn’t understand that we are surrounded by high-calorie food and that we no longer need to hunt for, feast on, and protect our food.
Coby dropped the bun and ran to my side. I scolded her and she did her best to apologize by squirming on the ground by my feet. I opened the back door of my car and instructed her to, “load up”. Before she jumped into the car she glanced at the pile of trash, looking longingly at the tasty heap. She looked up at me and I stared back with narrowed eyes and a frown. Eyes averted and head down, her ears flattened against her head and she jumped into the car. A more advanced part of her brain quieted her reptilian brain and she curled up into a ball as we drove back home.
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.