Understanding Approach-Avoidance Behaviors in Dogs
Understanding Dog Approach-Avoidance Behaviors
At times, dog owners come to me and label their dogs as having an ambivalent personality — some sort of canine personification of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The dog may appear to be friendly one minute and then fearful or even defensive the next. When doing an assessment, you see these dogs approach and retreat, and approach and retreat again in an ambiguous dance. In this case, Rover may appear to be unable to make a decision, but most likely there's more going on than just rational thinking. Most likely, we're looking at some sort of approach/ avoidance conflict with instinctive behaviors intertwined.
In approach, the animal may be drawn to a situation because it may have produced positive outcomes in the past. Curiosity often draws animals to investigate something. If past investigative approaches have resulted in positive outcomes, the dog may be more likely to be drawn to new things in the future. Approach in these cases involves positive reinforcement. Neophobic dogs, on the other hand are very tentative to embrace new stimuli and may stop investigating because of past negative experiences..
What is considered positive or negative though depends on the dog. The dog may feel drawn to a person because in the past this person has fed him food, but the dog may be also drawn to move closer to a person when he does so offensively such as to send the mailman away. Therefore, it's very important to read the dog's accompanying body language/vocalizations to tell if approach is meant to decrease distance or increase it.
In avoidance, animals are naturally drawn to avoid situations that are deemed as unsafe or that have a history of resulting in an aversive, negative outcomes. The animal therefore feels relief when he's presented with an unpleasant situation and removes himself from that. Avoidance in this case involves negative reinforcement, meaning that the dog feels better when he avoids the situation and will feel compelled to avoid it as well in the future. Avoidance behaviors are common in humans. If you are terrified of flying and on departure day you decide to cancel your flight because of your fear, you'll likely feel great relief. This relief will feel so good, next time you must fly, you'll feel tempted to avoid flying again. Same goes when there's a person you don't like and you see this person at the mall. Most likely, you'll walk in another direction and feel relief when you see this person hasn't noticed you. In animals, avoidance behavior is adaptive (linked to survival) to avoid situations that have a history of causing negative outcomes.
In this article, we will discuss the approach and avoidance behavior in a dog who is drawn but at the same time repelled from a stimulus or situation. This type of conflict is quite common in fearful dogs who will advance and retreat in what I call the "approach/avoidance dance." What causes a dog to engage in this behavior, and how can the dog be helped?
William James in his book "Principles of Psychology" claims that pleasure is a "tremendous reinforcer" of behavior and pain is a "tremendous inhibitor" of behavior. This is very true when it comes to dog behavior. Dogs will naturally seek pleasure and try to avoid pain/discomfort if there's awareness of it.
In certain circumstances, dogs may be drawn and repelled by a stimulus at the same time. This causes the dog to engage in approach and avoidance behavior. When the dog is far from the stimulus it appears desirable, but then as the dog gets closer, the stimulus appears less desirable and even scary. This one of the main reasons why it's best not to have strangers hand out food to your dog. The dog may not like strangers, but the food is oh, so appealing. So from a distance, the dog sees the outstretched hand and the tasty treat, the person therefore appears appealing, but as the dog gets closer, he'll likely tentatively take the food from the hand as he stretches his neck, but in the meanwhile, he may realize how close he is to the stranger. At this point, he'll likely back off startled in the "approach/avoidance" dance. And remember: the last thing that happened is the dog got startled, so the negative impression is most likely what will be recalled in future encounters.
In this state of mind, the dog cannot learn to like the stranger and there's no progress in teaching him to like strangers. It's far preferable if the owner would give out food at the sight of the stranger, or if the stranger can be briefed in tossing the food past the dog instead of letting the dog come so close as to startle him. Best to hire a behavior professional to guide you through the process to make sure your dog is under threshold and not being overwhelmed by the experience.