This is one that comes up over and over again:
A dog is afraid, the owner picks the dog up or cuddles or soothes the dog and everyone gasps in shock and horror – “You see, that is why the dog is so fearful – they are coddling the dog and he has learned that being afraid gets him attention”.
NO, NO, NO and a thousand times NOOOOOO!!!!!
Fear is an emotion and you cannot reinforce an emotion.
- How many of you have been in a scary situation?
- Have you been lost somewhere?
- Have you ever worried about a loved one’s safety?
- Have you fallen and hurt yourself?
- Have you had to go to a daunting meeting?
- Have you been mugged?
In how many of those situations has someone being nice to you, supporting you or giving you a hug during or after the event ever made you more scared?
Has it made you more likely to be scared of the same thing in the future? No, of course not. If anything, it might have helped you to cope or feel slightly better or stronger at the time to face what you were dealing with.
I am not suggesting that every time our dogs are afraid, we do nothing but sit and cuddle them and this will make it magically better – not at all. What I am saying, is that we need to stop thinking in terms of being able to reinforce emotions, when they are just that – emotions and not behaviours.
Emotions are involuntary responses and are not subject to operant conditioning. We cannot punish them and we cannot reinforce them.
Now, sometimes (actually very often) behaviours are carried out as the result of an emotion.
A dog that is afraid might flee and if this results in them successfully escaping the “scary” thing, then they will feel relief and the behaviour of running away will have been reinforced.
If the dog uses aggression to get the scary thing to move away and it works, then the aggressive outburst (an operant behaviour) will have been reinforced.
So, in that context, we do need to think about what behaviours we want to reinforce in our dogs.
I always say to puppy class owners, that if their puppy is looking uncomfortable and wants to move away from something – LET THEM DO SO! Then moving calmly away will be the behaviour that is reinforced.
If they are forced to stay in the situation that they do not like and their fear builds, eventually they will react with fight or flight and just surviving the situation will be enough for their brain to say: “Aha, that was clearly a good option – let’s do that again in the future!”
So here are some DO’S and DON’TS:
- DO feel free to reassure your dog if he is looking uncomfortable about something
- DO respond with love and kindness to your dog if he comes to you for reassurance during or after a scary event
- DO allow your dog the choice to move away from something he is not comfortable with (in fact, try to let it be his choice to approach things in the first place and don’t force him to interact with something against his will)
- DO feel free to sit and cuddle your dog if he wants to stay close, because the neighbours are having a loud party next door.
- DO NOT force your dog to “face his fears” by flooding him with whatever he does not like (e.g. forcing a dog scared of water into the pool)
- DO NOT ignore your dog when he looks for reassurance – you should be a place of safety and always the first person he seeks out when afraid
- DO NOT judge people who comfort and reassure their dogs or even pick them up to keep them out of potential danger