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  • Holly Leake

Can You Reinforce Your Dog's Fear?

You’re in the waiting room. You are sitting in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs, trying to ignore the clinical smell and the beeping from machines. You look at the outdated tatty magazines strewn on the table, as nurses flurry past with clipboards. You swallow the lump in your throat and try to ignore the butterflies in your stomach. The more you try not to think about it, the more the fear grows as you ruminate on what’s about to happen. You wring your hands and try to breathe slowly under the flickering fluorescent light. Another patient comes and sits down in a chair opposite looking as nervous as you feel. Despite the new company, you realize that you have never felt so alone in your life.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can paralyze us. It can cause us to flee or it can make us defensive. When we feel fear, we can’t think straight and we can’t be rational. It’s not just psychological it’s physical. We can feel our heart beating fast, the difficulty to breathe normally, nausea in our stomach, and the sweat on our palms. We cannot control how our body responds to fear. It just happens no matter how calm we try to be but the truth of the matter is, we can usually take action to alleviate that fear.

However, the majority of the time our dogs don’t have that option. They are often forced to face their fear on a daily basis. We may feel that our dog’s response to their triggers is overdramatic and rather ridiculous but does that really matter? It’s your dog’s feelings and perception of the thing they fear that counts.

Can you imagine sitting in that hospital waiting room dreading surgery every day? Imagine the physical toll that would have on your body! Others may tell you “don’t worry, it’s not worth fretting about”. Do you feel any safer? Not really. That person is not in your situation. In fact, they may have never been in your situation, so what do they know? You could try and explain how you are feeling but they can’t fully understand what you are going through. No one can. We may not understand why our dog is fearful and what they are truly experiencing but we have to acknowledge that they are frightened. How do we do that?

Think back to being in that hospital waiting room. What would make you feel a little better? The reason for your fear cannot be removed but can the fear be slightly reduced? Imagine your partner or closest friend walks into the waiting room, sits in the chair next to you, and takes your hand firmly in theirs. They share comforting words but it’s not what they say that helps you. It’s the fact that they have acknowledged this is a scary situation and have chosen to stay by your side. You will unlikely remember what they said but you remember that they were there for you when you needed it most.

Could this comfort and affection have worsened your fear of surgery or increased it in any way? Now that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? So why do we think that giving our dogs comfort when they need it most will reinforce their fear? You may have been told by other dog guardians or even trainers that comforting your dog when they are fearful will reinforce their fear. Is that true? Thankfully this is not true because emotion and behavior are two very different things.

Emotion is an involuntary response to a stimulus or event, whereas behavior is the way your dog responds to a stimulus or event. You have the power to trigger or cause fear in your dog but you cannot reinforce their fear. How could you do something to reinforce fear when your dog is already frightened? Fear is an emotion and emotions cannot be reinforced, only behavior can.

Animal Behaviourist Patricia McConnell (2009) explains that fear is designed to be aversive, which is why it is effective in influencing behavior and ensuring survival. It serves as a natural function to signal to the body that danger is present and that the animal needs to do something to make the scary thing go away. Fear is so aversive that no amount of fuss, sweet talk, and cuddles is going to reinforce it. Fear is not fun for anyone so your dog isn’t going to want to experience it to gain your attention when they can do that in so many other ways.

Therefore, if you talk consolingly and stroke your dog when they are afraid, they will not become more afraid of that stimulus/event because of your attention, neither will they want to revisit this experience just to get some fuss. Imagine you need to return to the hospital. Are you going to feel even more afraid than last time because your friend comforted you and put their arm around you the first time? Of course not! Do you see how ridiculous this notion is? All it does is stop you from giving your dog comfort when they need it most and this will break down the trust between you, just like it would if your friend refused to show empathy towards you when you were afraid.

Of course, it is possible to increase your dog’s fear but this would involve exposing your dog to fearful situations or using verbal or physical punishment. For example, if your dog was reactive when they saw other dogs and you respond by hitting and shouting at them, your dog’s reactive behavior will more than likely get worse. Wouldn’t we feel the same if we were treated badly by the doctor when we were already on edge?

If you are feeling fearful then your dog can sense this and become more fearful. For example, if you are walking your dog and then panic when you see another dog walker, your dog will sense the tension through the lead.

Your dog will think that this is something to be afraid of because you are also experiencing fear. We’ve known about emotional contagion for a long time. Both humans and dogs are social species and can thus be very susceptible to each other’s emotions. If you are increasing your dog’s fear because of your own emotions, you need to practice taking calm breaths and work on controlling your emotions around the feared stimuli before you can focus on helping your dog overcome their fears.

You can also increase your dog’s fear by inadvertently ignoring your dog’s needs, such as walking them head-on towards other dogs when we know they will bark and lunge. If you don’t acknowledge their feelings and implement strategies to reduce their fear, your dog will learn that they cannot trust you to keep them safe. Showing sympathy to someone in a time of need is the mark of a true friend. Do you want to be that friend to your dog? If you do, then make sure you comfort your dog when they need it most.

Unfortunately, comfort alone is not enough to remove fear entirely, especially if your dog is regularly exposed to fearful situations, where all choices are removed. Hence, you do need to take action to help your dog overcome its fears through management and training. Nevertheless, the first step is your attitude towards your dog’s behavior and understanding the emotions driving them. Once you recognize your dog’s needs you will become their trusted protector and will be moved to take compassionate action.

Remember that you do not have the power to reinforce your dog’s fear but you do have the power to reduce it!

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