“You Never Want to Reinforce Fear.”

How many of you have heard that if you pet, comfort, or give a treat to a dog while it’s afraid, you’re reinforcing that fear? That you’re telling your dog it’s okay to be afraid? To many people it makes sense because, well, we reward behaviors to make them keep happening… right? Absolutely.

But fear is not a behavior. Fear is an emotion.

Emotion cannot be trained the same way a behavior such as “sit” can. No dog WANTS to be afraid, no matter the reward. Handling fear in dogs first requires an understanding of how fear manifests in dogs and how they learn.

Most people would agree that a dog who is cowering, shaking, and tucking its tail between its legs is terrified. But what about the dog who bares his teeth, growls, and lunges at a stranger? Well, that is also fear. Most aggression is based in fear and insecurity; many dogs learn that the best defense is a good offense, so they lash out to keep that which they fear away.

The problem is that many people think it is appropriate to punish aggression since it is a behavior we don’t like. They don’t understand that the root of the behavior has to be addressed and resolved. If a dog growls at a guest, they may tell it “no!” and put it in time-out. Do you think that dog feels any more secure and safe around that guest? The only thing they’ve taught that dog is that when that guest comes over, he tends to get punished. He doesn’t necessarily connect the punishment with his “bad” behavior since he is focused on that guest. He has not been taught that the guest is not a threat and he has no reason to be afraid.

A quick note about punishing aggression: just because you’ve punished an “aggressive” behavior (such as growling) before and the behavior stopped does not mean the problem is resolved. Sure, you don’t like the growling and it’s stopped, but that just means YOUR problem is fixed – not your dog’s. Your dog is still feeling anxious and insecure. It’s just that now he’s not warning you about it. You’ve taken away his communication by suppressing it – you’ve merely put a band-aid over a gaping wound. This is dangerous because now he may skip growling and go straight to biting, because you took away his polite warning. Growling may not be considered polite in human society, but it’s just another form of communication for a dog.

Also, just because a dog’s fear is trivial to us does not mean it should be treated that way. My boyfriend’s border collie, Daisy, was afraid of the new bike rack at our favorite trail. Of course WE know it’s silly to be afraid of a bike rack, but she had absolutely no clue what this big, strange object was. For all she knew it could spring to life and eat her.

Since we cannot communicate its harmlessness to her with spoken language, we have to do it with counter-conditioning.

To simplify, when you counter-condition an emotional response, you are basically changing how the dog feels about something by making sure they have positive experiences with that thing. You are countering the negative emotion and conditioning it into a positive one. I began giving Daisy treats for merely looking at the bike rack. Then she got treats for leaning toward it, then sniffing it. Very soon she learned the bike rack was nothing to be afraid of – in fact, it was kind of fun to be around! She will gladly walk right up to it without me or my treats now. Had I ignored that fear, it probably would not have gotten any better. Had I punished that fear by forcing her to go up to the bike rack, I would have only given her more reason to be afraid of the bike rack (and damaged her trust in me).

If you’re afraid, how do you want to be treated? Will you stop being afraid if someone smacks you and tells you to get over it? Will you stop being afraid if someone just ignores you? Will you stop being afraid if someone holds you down and forces you to endure the thing that’s terrifying you? I’m guessing probably not. But you might feel better if they reassured you, didn’t push you out of your comfort zone, and made you feel safe.

“But dogs aren’t people! They don’t learn the same way!”

Yes and no. Dogs are not people and I absolutely think that should be respected. However, both dogs and people (and just about every other animal) DO learn the same way. Dogs have actually been found to be roughly on the same cognitive level of human toddlers. We all learn by association and consequence. A toddler learns a stove is hot by touching it and burning his hand. Dogs essentially learn the same way. The main difference that makes teaching a dog tricky is our inability to explain things to them with words. So we have to find other ways to communicate to them that it’s okay, they’re safe, and there’s no need to be upset.

How do we do this? By making their experiences with the source of fear GOOD experiences. When the source of fear shows up, good things happen (like treats) and we reassure them with words and petting (if that is what they want; some dogs don’t want to be touched when they’re afraid). Don’t push them out of their comfort zone. They need to know you will provide that security. If we are calm and comfortable, our dogs are more likely to be too. Don’t make a scene by hugging your dog and going, “Oh poor baby! It’s okay, honey, don’t be scared, shhh!” That is you making a big deal of it and being stressed about their stress which in turn causes them more stress… er, I hope that made sense.

I have heard of dogs who received attention when they were afraid and then learned to shake or tremble when they wanted attention. The only thing that’s happened there is they reinforced the trembling, not the fear. If a dog is trembling for attention but not afraid, well, I don’t see what the big deal is. Maybe you can even put it on cue and teach your dog to tremble on command!

It’s also key to remember that every dog is different. Learn your dog’s body language, learn their comfort zones, learn what they find rewarding or punishing (it may vary from one situation to another), and use that information to teach them there’s no need to be afraid and that they are safe with you. Punishing or ignoring fearful/aggressive behavior will not help. It may even make things worse.

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