Can You Reinforce Your Dog's Fear?
What Is Fear in Dogs?
Fear is defined as a distressing sensation triggered by something that is perceived as a threat. This universal emotion allows all animals (humans included) to avoid dangerous situations that can cause pain, injury, or death. In general, fear is healthy because we would not be able to survive without it. But when it becomes a frequent occurrence, it can lead to maladaptive problems.
Owners with dogs suffering from brontophobia (fear of thunder) know that their pups can be quite miserable when summer T-storms roll in one after another. Dogs that are constantly afraid may shed excessively, lack restful REM sleep, and their immune system may not be as effective, making them more susceptible to diseases.
However, countless books and websites suggest to avoid cuddling, petting, and comforting fearful dogs because doing so encourages them to be even more afraid. But can emotions like fear really be reinforced?
How to Deal Wth Your Dog's Fear?
Let's look at an example offered by Pia Silvani, a certified professional dog trainer and Director of Training and Behavior at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center in Madison, NJ. Her dog was phobic about thunder and used to pace, drool, pant, tremble, and hide. Because she did not want to "reinforce fear," Pia let him be.
But one day, she noticed that her dog was desperately chewing on his paws. Pia instantly felt guilty about doing so little to comfort her dog. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she invited him into her bed and gave him a soothing massage. She also hugged him, kissed him, and told him how sorry she was.
She later bought him a bed, put it in a closet, and filled it up with toys. As the years went by, his fear subsided. He learned to lie next to her and was finally able to sleep peacefully during a storm. It looks like positive associations were formed! I can sense counter-conditioning at play.
It is important to note that certain things that dog owners do can "intensify" fear. Certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell explains in her blog, "The Other End of the Leash," that if you are fearful or tense, or if you further scare your dog while he is already afraid, then you can make your dog even more terrified than he already is.
On top of that, exposing your dog to an intensified version of the stimulus he fears may lead to sensitization—in other words, your dog's response to fear will be amplified. This is why petting, cuddling, or comforting a dog will likely help.
The Power of Counterconditioning
A good approach in tackling dog fear is to invest in classical counterconditioning — a behavior modification technique meant to change the dog's emotional response towards a feared stimulus by encouraging an emotion that is incompatible with fear.
- If your dog is terrified of storms, bring out all of his toys during a storm and encourage play. Play is incompatible with fear. The toys should be taken out when you first hear thunder, and they should be promptly removed the moment the storm ends.
- You should first try this exercise under the threshold because dogs may not want to play or eat treats if the frightening stimulus is too intense. You will do this by playing a recording of storm sounds at a low volume. Incrementally increase the volume over time to get your dog used to the noise.
By classically counterconditioning your dog, you will be able to change his emotional response to the stimulus, and his fearful or anxious behaviors will go away as a result. For best results, combine counterconditioning with systematic desensitization.
Reasons Why Fear Cannot Be Reinforced
If you have a strong bond with your dog, your soothing voice and the attention you give him are all potentially reinforcing. For example, if your pet enjoys your attention and you pet your dog every time he sits, he will sit more frequently because he associates the act of sitting with something positive.
This is scientifically proven. Thorndike's Law of Effect claims that "behaviors that are followed by good consequences are likely to be repeated in the future." Pamela Reid, in her book Excel-erated Learning defines reinforcement as "the process by which a behavior is more likely to occur in the future because a reinforcer was presented contingent to the behavior."
This behavioral response to reinforcement falls under what's called "operant conditioning." Basically, the dog learns how he should "operate" when his behavior produces a pleasant consequence. Because of this theory, many people wrongly assume that fear can be reinforced in the same way that good behavior is encouraged with treats and praise. Following are some reasons why fear cannot be reinforced.
1. Fear Is Not a Behavior. It's an Emotion!
Let's get back to Thorndike's Law of Effect. In this book he states that "behaviors that are followed by good consequences are likely to be repeated in the future." You can train a dog to sit, stay, lie down, and come by rewarding him and, thus, reinforcing his behavior, but again, fear is an emotion. Behaviors are reinforced through "operant conditioning." This means that dogs learn how to act when their behavior produces a pleasant consequence.
According to Steve Lindsay's book Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, the process of altering emotions, instead, falls under "classical conditioning."In classical conditioning, no reinforcement takes place; only associations occur.
According to Steve, your dog will not think, "My owner is petting me because I am fearful, so, therefore, I should be more fearful in the future." After all, how can a dog command himself to increase his heart rate, dilate his pupils, and increase his breathing?
In my experience, problem behaviors related to fear (such as barking, growling, lunging to increase distance from something perceived as frightening) gradually dissipate end eventually disappear automatically once the underlying emotion (fear) is addressed through counterconditioning.
2. Fear Interferes With Learning
Because fear is an intense, aversive emotion, it often interferes with the dog's cognitive functions. When this happens, there is little space for certain types of learning. For instance, if you try to train a very fearful dog in presence of a stimulus he perceives as frightening, you may not get much out of the session because he will be unable to focus and is over the threshold. Some anxious dogs will not even take any treats!
To make this picture clearer, imagine being afraid of heights. You are forced to climb up a skyscraper and walk on the ledge. You shake, feel dizzy, sweat, and panic, and your heart pumps faster. At this point, your body goes into a fight-or-flight response. If your boyfriend suddenly appears to hold your hand, you would most likely care less or, perhaps, only feel a tiny bit of comfort because all your energy is focused on fear.
Now, let's say that instead of being forced to climb up a skyscraper and walk on the ledge, you were asked to simply go to the first floor of a building and look out the window for a split second. You might still be afraid, but, in this case, if your boyfriend held your hand, you would likely feel much more comforted because your fear is not so overwhelming that it takes over all of your other senses.
Of course, from a rational standpoint, dogs do not think in the same way humans do because they cannot rationally talk themselves through fear. However, it is a fact that when a dog's body is in a fight-or-flight response, little of his attention is paid to irrelevant things such responding to a trainer-mediated cue.
You could even dangle a slice of baloney in his frightened face, and he would care less because in a fight or flight situation, appetite and digestive processes are often put to a halt. But if you comfort your dog under the threshold by introducing him to the same stimulus in a milder form and offer him tasty treats, then your dog may be able to learn some positive associations and retain something.
Can fear be reinforced?
- Hetts, Suzanne, Ph.D and Estep, Daniel, Ph.D. Myth of Reinforcing Fear.
- Lindsay, Steve. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume One. Pp. 85-90. Iowa, Iowa State University Press, 2000.
- McConnell, Patricia. The Other End of the Leash Blog, "You Can't Reinforce Fear: Dogs and Thunderstorms."
- Reid, Pamela J. Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them. Oakland, CA.: James and Kenneth Publishers, 1996.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli