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Does Comforting a Scared Dog Reinforce Its Fear?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

Can emotions like fear be reinforced like behaviors?

Can emotions like fear be reinforced like behaviors?

Can You Reinforce 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. When it becomes a frequent occurrence, however, 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 and lose restful REM sleep, and their immune system may not work as effectively, making them more susceptible to diseases.

Countless books and websites suggest avoiding cuddling, petting, and comforting fearful dogs because doing so may encourage them to be even more afraid. But can emotions like fear really be reinforced?

Food offers an excellent distraction during fear-invoking events.

Food offers an excellent distraction during fear-invoking events.

Does Comforting a Dog While They Are Afraid Reinforce Their 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.

How to Train Your Dog to Be Less Fearful Using Counterconditioning

A good approach to 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.

Example

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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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 an Emotion, Not a Behavior

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 the 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 not care 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 as responding to a trainer-mediated cue.

You could even dangle a slice of baloney in his frightened face and he wouldn't care, 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 offering him tasty treats, then your dog may be able to learn some positive associations and retain something.

References

  1. Hetts, Suzanne, Ph.D and Estep, Daniel, Ph.D. Myth of Reinforcing Fear.
  2. Lindsay, Steve. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume One. Pp. 85-90. Iowa, Iowa State University Press, 2000.
  3. McConnell, Patricia. The Other End of the Leash Blog, "You Can't Reinforce Fear: Dogs and Thunderstorms."
  4. 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

Comments

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee on September 03, 2020:

it's valuable for pet lovers...

Devika Primic on January 20, 2020:

This is a helpful hub for many dog owners. I know this from my dog in fear of certain noises i let her sleep inside in bad weather and when fireworks are lit on the street.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 16, 2018:

Thanks Gill, this is an issue that comes up a lot in dog training circles and one of the most debated topics. There are still many old books that make statements in regards to not reassuring or petting dogs so not to reinforce their fears, but we know now that this is not true.

Gill Panton on October 12, 2018:

Excellent article. I found it most useful. Written in an informative and easy to understand manner.

Thank you

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 23, 2018:

Hello Brenda, articles on Pethelpful are copyrighted, so you can share the link so members can read the article directly on Pethelpful, but you cannot copy any articles on an another website. If you go on my profile, you can contact me directly through my Facebook page for directions should you wish to use the article in print publications.

Brenda Scotchie on September 02, 2018:

Adrienne,

This article is so informative! I'm a co-founder of the West Virginia Service Dog Support Group, and I'm sure many of our members could benefit from this article's information. I checked the copyright guidelines for PetHelpful, and it states I should contact you directly. I'm having a terrible time finding your email or your preferred method of communication. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Norma Lawrence from California on August 02, 2016:

Great article. So much good information. Thanks

MH Bonham from Missoula, Montana on January 16, 2015:

Hi Adrienne!

He's actually not afraid of it. He's more ready to fight with the weather, which can drive you nuts when it thunders. He's an oddball of a dog, but we're fond of him. I have weird dog stories about him because he makes odd leaps of inference I've never seen even my smartest dogs do. Alas, he is nearly 14 years old and I suspect he won't be with us much longer, but he certainly has lived a colorful life.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 16, 2015:

Hello Maggie , thank you for sharing your experience in the matter. My male Rottweiler hates hail as well. He used to tolerate it well, until one day in March he got sensitized when we lived in Missouri and got hail as big as golf balls. The noise of it pounding on our metal roof was extremely loud. Our reaction to it may have also played a role as we were making excited, yet concerned, remarks of how big it was and how it was going to ruin our car and the chances of a tornado coming through. The hail was so big and heavy it made a big gap in our mailbox. So afterward, if it just hailed a little bit he would start whining and pacing as soon as he would hear it bouncing off the roof. Luckily, it rarely hails now that I live in Arizona.

MH Bonham from Missoula, Montana on January 15, 2015:

Nice article. Way back when us dog experts were told that coddling could increase fear, I've owned dogs who were afraid of thunder and got worse over time. Nothing I did or didn't do mattered. So I pretty much have decided it's a behavior that may be inherited given that the most fearful were herding breeds. So, I gave them a safe place to stay and didn't make a big deal out of the weather. If they wanted reassurance they were okay, I gave it to them, but mostly we kept things calm and normal, working around their fears.

Then again, I had one dog who would challenge the weather when it hailed. He was so affronted that the sky pelted him that he roared at it and wouldn't come inside. Guess who had to "rescue" him from the hail?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 31, 2014:

A wonderful testament that you cannot reinforce fear. Thanks for sharing!

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on October 31, 2014:

I have always petted my dogs during storms and it makes them relax. The dog I have now is so relaxed she has fear of nothing. Great Hub.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on August 02, 2014:

This is a very helpful hub. Our dog, Ashley Belle Pumpernickel is scared of thunder and rain. She usually sleeps in a closed area outside, but she will pound on the door relentlessly, so we allow her to sleep in our room. It's very sad when a dog is fearful and the fear is ignored. Your article is very useful and will help others see that a dog's fear should be taken seriously.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2014:

Thanks susansisk! Good to hear you protect her by not putting her in overwhelming situations! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Kind regards!

Susan Sisk from Georgia, USA on July 08, 2014:

Very good article! We have a dog that is very fearful of dogs she does not know. She can not be taken to a dog park, because dogs sense her fear, and often try to dominate her. This just makes it worse.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on February 18, 2014:

Very helpful. We tend to forget that fear is a real emotion in dogs, and often think it's funny. I must confess -- when I want all my dogs off the bed I scare them with a hairdryer. Better find better ways to do it.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 12, 2014:

Thank you for sharing and pinning PeggyW! This article is close to my heart as it was featured on a scientific blog by an organization I respect.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 12, 2014:

This is very interesting information for all of us who love our pets. Happy to share this information with others on HP and also pinning.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 22, 2013:

That's funny, I feel fore your pets though,T-storms can be scary! Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca Furtado from Anderson, Indiana on November 22, 2013:

Good hub, um my herd of dogs and cats form a giant pet pile during storms. Fear makes strange bed fellows. I am sharing this one.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 15, 2013:

That's awesome Moonlake! Gotta keep those doggies warm in the winter! My girl just yesterday for the first time ever started acting worried about the smoke alarm which goes off for even the smallest sign of smoke from my over. We started playing fetch--which she loves-- and she luckily seemed to forget all about it.

moonlake from America on November 15, 2013:

Our dog fears velcro. We have finally got him not to freak out when we put his jacket on. It's way to cold here for his little body to go out in the cold without some kind of protection.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 11, 2013:

Thanks Sinea Pines!

Sinea Pies from Northeastern United States on November 10, 2013:

Great hub....love the photo! Voted up and interesting.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 09, 2013:

I am happy you found this hub helpful Mel Carriere, I am sure many encounters are fear-based and the dogs are just sending distance-increasing signals. Kind regards!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 08, 2013:

Excellent analysis. As a letter carrier it is very important for me to understand canine fear because I encounter it every day. Great hub!