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Can We Reinforce Fear In Our Dogs?

October 08, 2012

Can We Reinforce Fear In Our Dogs?

Imagine for a second that you’re in a puppy class for the first time with your extremely shy 10 week old pup.  As soon as play session starts he’s met with a full-on charge from a bouncing 14 week old goldendoodle.  His first reaction is to hide under the chair.  He won’t come out, so out of concern for your pup you try to coax him to come out and be brave, but your trainer tells you not to.  “We don’t want to reinforce his fear”, is the explanation you’re given.  “If you coddle him it’ll just make him more fearful”.

Let me be the first to admit that, for my first few years as a dog trainer I taught this in class.  It seemed to make sense to me and to be honest, it’s what I was taught.  But something seemed to be missing with this type of logic.  My heart almost couldn’t bear to see these owners forced to ignore their puppies while they shake and cower- be it during class, a thunderstorm or any other situation.  As I began to look more into it, I began to change my thinking on the matter (when we know better we do better right?).

Emotions and Behaviour Are two Different Things.

It seems flawed to me to assume that, just because a dog feels a certain way, then he’ll act a certain way.  For example, if you’re working with a dog that’s aggressive on-leash, and he’s lunging at other dogs it isn’t enough to simply stop him from lunging.  We can change his behaviour by forcing him to sit or lie down when he sees another dog, but his emotions might still be running rampant.  He may sit like an angel while shooting death daggers at the oncoming dog-body stiff and hackles raised in anticipation.  Or we could teach a dog to stay before we throw the ball for fetch, but it’s taking every last ounce of self control for him to not launch himself at your throwing arm.  If you follow my lead here, the implication is that, while we may THINK we’re reinforcing the emotion of fear, we’re actually reinforcing the BEHAVIOURS that manifest as a result of that fear.

They Feel What They Feel.

When I was little I was terrified of the dark.  I mean terrified.  I would wake up in the middle of the night in a full-blown panic and run to my mum’s room for some much-needed TLC.  Not once did my mum ever say, “go back to bed little chick, I don’t want to make you more afraid by giving you a hug”.  When you put it like that it seems so absurd.  Comforting a fearful dog will not make him more afraid. Dogs are social.  They look to each other (and to us) for reassurance that all is well and for indications of danger.  The “tough love” approach doesn’t work here, I’m afraid.  If my dog is shaking like a leaf because the fire alarm went off you can damn well bet I’ll be squeezing her tight until I feel her body relax and her heart rate come down.

Concessions.

Here’s where I need to clarify the underlying message.  I’m not saying that we should coddle our dogs and immediately rescue them from every situation that causes them stress.  Life is stressful.  Our dogs need to learn to cope with varying amounts of frustration and fear in order to function.  It’s important for us to teach them how to handle these situations through counderconditioning and at a pace they can handle.  If we immediately remove them from every overwhelming circumstance they’ll never learn to problem solve or self-soothe.  However, there’s a BIG difference between a dog that’s learned to whine when he wants to go home and a dog that’s covered in drool and has pupils as big as dinner plates.  Part of our job as trainers and owner is to learn that difference.  Dogs are genuinely impressive at learning what behaviour gets reinforced and what doesn’t…but that doesn’t mean they’re always trying to manipulate us.  Sometimes they just need to be held.  And I’m ok with that.

Written By

Danielle Hodges, CPDT-KA

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