BOOK REVIEW Mood Matters: MHERA An innovative assessment approach to animal emotionality in the treatment of behaviour problems

There are thousands of books to choose from on dog, cat and horse behaviour and more being published every day, but this book really stands out as a masterpiece. Karin Pienaar is a professional behaviourist with decades of experience under her belt, and she’s finally got round to telling the rest of us how she works.

Whether you’re working as a professional behaviourist, a trainer, or just interested in wanting to know more about how you can build better relationships with the animals around you – this book is for you.

What I like most about this book, apart from the content, is its no-nonsense style. It’s very personable and feels like I’m in conversation with the author which I find really refreshing.


Following a short introductory chapter, Pienaar throws us head-first in at the deep end with Chapter 2, which is the murky world of emotion neuroscience. But no need to panic. She’s holding onto our hand tightly as she reassures us that we can dismiss most of the 100 or so different definitions for what emotions are. The first couple of pages give us a potted history of emotion science, the thorny issues of the politics, and its importance (and neglect) in animal welfare. We then dive right into the practical application of emotion science which lays the foundations for the rest of the book.

Of all the emotion theories out there, Pienaar has broadly adopted 2 of them that are historically irreconcilable because they are at opposite ends of the emotion spectrum. However, she manages to seamlessly combine them into MHERA, the tool she has developed to facilitate a step-by-step, systematic approach to solving behaviour problems in animals. MHERA itself is the subject of Chapter 3.

The first emotion system of MHERA is Jaak Panksepp’s 7 core EMOTIONS, namely SEEKING, PLAY, CARE, FEAR, RAGE, PANIC/GRIEF and LUST. The CAPS indicate Panksepp’s unique categorisation of his system. This is a really important (and equally confusing) point because the labels Panksepp has used are terms already in common use. So Panksepp’s PLAY SYSTEM has a precise anatomical location in the brain and plays (see what I did there?) a distinct functional role in an organism’s emotional life. Likewise, FEAR, CARE etc are dissociable from the colloquial use of the same terms.

Since its introduction into the mainstream companion animal behaviour community in 2005 (see Forward and Chapter 1 of the book), Panksepp’s SYSTEMS have subsequently been interpreted, misinterpreted, used, and abused far and wide throughout the animal community. However, Pienaar’s summary of ‘The Panksepp 7’ is one of the best I’ve seen. Full of nuance and with a distinctive bias toward its practical hands-on application which is the style played out through the rest of the book. For example, in her description of the SEEKING SYSTEM, Pienaar tackles some of the outdated misconceptions concerning rewards, motivation and reinforcement that are still in common use within the animal training and behaviour community. This is a motif re-visited in Chapter 4, which I applaud because the dogma that pervades learning theory has needed knocking down a peg or two for decades. More in Chapter 4 later.


Chapter 3, an Introduction to MHERA, is a roll-up-your-sleeves tour-de-force supported by 20 illustrative figures and 3 tables. That’s a lot of bang for your buck, and it’s also where the second emotion theory of MHERA comes in (Panksepp’s is the first, discussed above). While Panksepp 7 discrete emotion SYSTEMS are crucially important, they are not enough on their own to describe the full phenomenological lived experiences of a thinking organism. What’s missing are the gaps in between that describe MOOD STATE.

I think of it this way. If emotion states are represented by distinct colours of paint, the accompanying mood state (note, there’s just one of them) is what you get when you mix the paints together. Furthermore, once mixed you can’t unmix them again. This analogy works well because, unlike emotion states, mood states are persistent and resistant to change. This is a popular concept in human psychology because it links neatly into personality types (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). There’s a lot of empirical evidence that personality type influences welfare in (other) animals too, rendering them more or less vulnerable to stressors.
This is where the holistic approach adopted by MHERA really comes into its own as a fabulous tool that anyone can use to assess welfare. MHERA also facilitates coming up with solutions to help support an animal that is not coping well with life. So, it’s both a diagnostic tool and a tool that helps forge a remedial solution.


The responsibility learning theory in Chapter 4 has been handed over to a second author, Nancy Payne. A shrewd move on Pienaar’s part because Payne offers us a no-nonsense, refreshing perspective by someone from a very different field – quantum physics. The title of the Chapter (Reinforcement – what is it really) gives us a clue where she’s headed with this. For example, she dismantles the widespread idea that dopamine is the ‘happy hormone’ that’s somehow the key to the feeling of ‘reward’. This (wrong) belief recently went viral in the fashion industry and ended up in the movies as Emma Stone’s Yellow Dress in “La La Land”!

Thank goodness, characters from the old world of behaviourism like Pavlov and Skinner don’t get a mention. Instead, Payne taps into more recent and relevant research from the world of neuroscience. Why is this important? Because behaviourism relegates the role of the brain/mind into a black box and then pretends it’s not there. Accordingly, the behaviour you see in a dog is the totality of what there is.

Neuroscience instead takes us behind the scenes and endeavours to work out the neural substrates of that behaviour. Yet, even after 50 years of hard-graft research, this is still a work-in-progress, and we still have much to learn about what actually motivates a particular animal to do that particular thing in that particular context. And for anyone working with animals, this is a good thing. It reminds us to challenge anyone who claims to have the answer to every animal’s behaviour problem.


The remaining 5 chapters of the book are its jackpot prize for me, real-world case histories. Each chapter features a different species – dog, cat, cow, horse and finally a gorilla – where Pienaar walks us through how MHERA was used to solve their behaviour problems. Now, I know some dog folks reading this are going to be disappointed that all the cases are not dogs. I can reassure you from decades of experience that you’ll take away far more from this cross-spectrum of species than you would had they all been canines. First, you’ll see just how much can be achieved in situations where your options and the resources available to you are so limited. Second, you’ll get a different perspective on aspects of our relationship with dogs we take for granted, such as consent. The final chapter discusses this very problem with a rather grumpy gorilla!


Finally, the book is a decent, large-format size allowing for space to really showcase the 49 figures and numerous tables. I’m fed up with paying good money for books only to find a I need a magnifying glass to read the illustrations, so well done to Dogwise the publishers for this.


An evidence-based approach to choosing, combining, and using commercial calming supplements in the rescue setting

An overarching welfare priority of animal rescue centres is the management of stress. The successful rehoming of especially cats and dogs depends on how well they learn to manage their own negative emotional states during their stay.

Continue reading “An evidence-based approach to choosing, combining, and using commercial calming supplements in the rescue setting”

Where horse meets hound: the diet, microbiome, emotions, and behaviour connection

Very please to be talking about dogs and horses at Royal Windsor Racecourse. Here’s a summary from my slides…

The most extensively studied species in the science of brain, mind and emotion is ourselves. Coming in a close second place are dogs. This is because, over the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research in universities all over the world, where whole departments have been established, dedicated to the study of canine cognition.

Continue reading “Where horse meets hound: the diet, microbiome, emotions, and behaviour connection”

Dopamine and Serotonin – Dog Speak with Colin Spence and Patricia McGrady

For more chats – CLICK HERE

Chat, banter and discussion about the dog world. Colin and Patricia are behaviourists and will be talking about everything from diet to behaviour. With industry speakers, case studies, news, views, controversial subjects, topical issues and plenty of tips and knowledge, these podcasts are for anyone with an interest in dogs.

Here Robert Falconer-Taylor talks about neurotransmitters including Dopamine and Serotonin

Robert Falconer-Taylor chats with Claire Martin

For more chats – CLICK HERE

@Dog Centred Care hosts chats from the Dog Centred Care FB group –

In this next discussion as part of his monthly series , Robert talks with Claire Martin. They talk about the role of dog sports in the lives of Claire and her dogs, the role of her dogs in education and the benefits they can bring to the social and emotional well-being of our young people, the dynamics of living with a large group of dogs and linking all of these to the hedonic budget of the dogs through activation of the seeking system.

This is a cracker !

BIO from Claire :

I am a COAPE trained behaviourist and trainer, a secondary school teacher and I live with a family of 9 rescue sighthound dogs.

The dogs and I train and compete at a variety of dog sports including canicross, bikejor, scooterjor, agility, hoopers, lure coursing and mantrailing.
My dogs also come to work with me, to the specialist school where I work, and they are present in lessons and in everyday school life. Our students have a range of medical needs but many are very able and most are neurodiverse.

With a colleague I have written a level 2 accredited qualification in dog training and husbandry that sits within the school education framework and I teach this course to around 50 students a year.

I see some behaviour clients still, despite my full time career!, primarily dogs who are reactive and often bite risks.

My particular skill set is in developing the ‘hedonic budget’ of these dogs, particularly balancing their individual emotional needs (conceptualised within Panksepp’s emotional SYSTEMS e.g. SEEKING in all its variations, see Karin Pienaar’s Talk on MHERA) and mood state.

I also volunteer as the sole behaviour adviser for a podenco rescue and as part of a team providing support to the dogs homed by a U.K. sighthound rescue.

Robert Falconer-Taylor chats with Karin Pienaar on MHERA

For more chats – CLICK HERE

In the first of Roberts monthly live chats in the Dog Centred Care group on Facebook ( , he welcomes Karin Pienaar. Karin has just finished writing a book about MHERA and we will be discussing the new science underpinning the System, the philosophy behind it and its practical application in dogs with behaviour problems. We’ll also talk about how MHERA can be applied in everyday life across species (including humans) to help us all lives happier, healthier and longer lives.

BACKGROUND STORY: COAPE (the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology) was founded in 1998, and a non-negotiable cornerstone of its approach to animal behaviour has always been that non-human animals live rich emotional lives much like we humans do. Out of this approach, the “Emotional Assessment – Mood State Assessment – Hedonic Budget Assessment – Reinforcement Assessment” (EMRA) was born. EMRA is a practical tool designed for behaviourists to use in their assessment and management of behaviour cases and is widely used all over the world.
Around 2015, advances in neuroscience and its application in the practical assessment of welfare in animals lead to the realisation that more important than emotional states themselves, was the animal’s mood state.

The EMRA System developed by COAPE was inherently emotion-centric and it needed an upgrade. In 2018, COAPE became COAPE International in the cable hands of Karin Pienaar and colleagues and Karin’s first job was to undertake that upgrade. 4 long years later, MHERA™ (Mood State Assessment – Hedonic Budget Assessment – Emotional Assessment – Reinforcement Assessment) was born.

Bio :
Karin Pienaar: COAPE International Partner. DipCABT (COAPE) OCN, CertCAB, CAPBT Practitioner, CAB.
Karin has been working in the field of animal behaviour therapy since 1997. She completed her Diploma in Animal Behaviour in the UK with COAPE. She is a member of both the CAPBT and ICAN and is an International Certified Animal Behaviourist (CAB).

After more than 20 years of consulting with dog and cat owners, Karin now focuses mainly on managing COAPE International, presenting the COAPE Diploma and mentoring students. She is also responsible for course advancement and developed the MHERA™ concept which is now taught as a core component of the COAPE approach. Karin is the Behaviour Consultant to numerous pet companies such as Eukanuba and Ascendis Animal Health in South Africa and is a regular contributor to several local and international magazines, as well as appearing on television and radio when time allows.

She heads the Enrichment Partnership Program between COAPE International and several captive wildlife facilities, to develop bespoke enrichment programs to promote the behavioural and emotional health of animals, as well as implementing consent-based training to facilitate stress-free husbandry and medical procedures. The captive animal project provides the unique opportunity to apply COAPE’s MHERA™ and ESTA™ techniques to a huge variety of animal species, with great success to date.