Can you Reinforce Your Dog's Fear?

Can you reinforce fear in dogs?
Can you reinforce fear in dogs? | Source

What is Fear in Dogs?

Can you reinforce fear in dogs? It would help first to define what fear is. Fear is defined as a distressing sensation triggered by something perceived as a threat. Fear in dogs is subjective, meaning that what can be fearful for one dog may not be for another. In dogs, humans, and animals in general, fear is closely linked to survival. It is thanks to this universal emotion that we avoid dangerous situations that can cause pain, injury or loss of life. When fear is present, dogs often develop a fight or flight response. In other words, the dog may decide to flee or confront the frightening stimulus, especially when the dog feels trapped. When fear is overwhelming though, the dog may just give up, stop moving and freeze, in a state of learned helplessness.

While fear is generally healthy, because without it, dogs, humans and animals in general would not have been able to survive (think about what would have happened if we were not fearful of dinosaurs, fire and packs of wolves), when it becomes a frequent companion, it can become maladaptive and lead to problems. Owners of dogs suffering from brontophobia (fear of thunder) know for a fact how their dogs can be quite miserable when summer t-storms roll in, one after another. Dogs in a constant state of fear may also shed excessively, their immune system may not be as effective, and affected dogs may be more subject to disease. Because of this, fearful dogs must be helped.

Countless books and websites suggest to avoid cuddling, petting and comforting fearful dogs because by doing so the fear will reinforced. But can emotions such as fear be really reinforced? We will find out in the next paragraph.

Suzanne Clothier Explains How to Calm the Fearful Dog

Can You Really Reinforce Fear in Dogs?

Let's think about this for a moment. If you have a strong bond with your dog, very likely your soothing voice, attention and petting is reinforcing. If you you pet your dog every time he sits, , if he loves to be pet, you should see an increase in the sitting behavior over time. This is scientifically proven; indeed, Thorndike's Law of Effect claims "behaviors that are followed by good consequences are likely to be repeated in the future". Pamela Reid, in her book " Excel-erated Learning" defines reinforcement as "the process by which a behavior is more likely to occur in the future, because a reinforcer was presented contingent the behavior" . This is operant conditioning; basically, the dog learns to "operate" because his behavior produces a pleasant consequence. Because of this, many of us assume that fear can be reinforced, just as you would reinforce a dog for coming when called by giving treats treats or reinforce a sit with loads of praise. Following are some reasons why fear cannot be reinforced.

  • Fear Interferes with learning

Because fear is an intense, aversive emotion, most likely it will interfere with the dog's cognitive functions. When this happens, there is little space for learning. For instance, if you try to train a very fearful dog, you may not get much out of the session if your dog is unable to focus and is over the threshold. Indeed, in many fearful dogs there is such little space for learning that they often will not even take any treats, and that incudes even the high value ones!

To make the picture clearer, imagine being fearful of heights: you are forced to climb up a skyscraper and walk on the ledge. You shake, feel dizzy, sweat and panic as your heart pumps faster and your body goes into a flight and fight response. At this point, if your boyfriend was added to the picture and he was to hold your hand, you would most likely care less or perhaps feel only a tiny itsy bit of comfort because all your energy is focused on the fear.

Now, let's say instead of being forced to climb up a skyscraper and walk on the ledge, you were asked to simply go to the first floor of a building and look out the window for one split second. Very likely, you would be fearful, but in this case, if your boyfriend would hold your hand, you would likely feel more of his support, simply because your fear is not that overwhelming.

Of course, from a rational standpoint, dogs do not think the same way as humans because they cannot rationally talk themselves through fear, but it is a fact that when a dog's body is in a flight or fight response little attention is paid to anything else. Indeed, you can even dangle a slice of baloney in their frightened face and very likely they will care less or take it and spit it out! Now, if you work the dog under the threshold, then your dog may be able to learn and retain something.

  • Fear is not a Behavior, it's an Emotion!

But most importantly, fear cannot be reinforced, because fear is NOT a behavior, it is an emotion. Let' get back to Thorndike's Law of Effect "behaviors that are followed by good consequences are likely to be repeated in the future". So yes, you can train a dog to sit, stay, lie down and come when called by rewarding and thus, reinforcing the behavior, but again, these are behaviors and fear is an emotion.

Behaviors are reinforced through operant conditioning; the dog learns that if he performs a behavior there is a pleasant consequence. The process of altering emotions, instead, falls under classical conditioning, according to Lindsay, S. in the book "Handbook of applied dog behavior and training". In classical conditioning; indeed, no "reinforcement" takes place, only associations occur.

The dog therefore will not be actively thinking "my owner is petting me because I am fearful, and therefore, I will be more fearful in the future". After all, how can a dog command itself to increase its heart rate, dilate its pupils and increase his breathing? However, it is not known if problem behaviors that occur out of fear may be reinforced though. Suzanne Clothier in her video featured explains how a horse learned to limp just to get attention and avoid working. Interestingly, though, problem behaviors related to fear should automatically disappear once the underlying emotion (fear) is gone.

How to Deal with Your Dog's Fear?

A great example is offered by Pia Silvani, certified professional dog trainer and director of training and behavior at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center in Madison, NJ. Her dog was phobic of thunder and used to pace, drool, pant, tremble and hide. Because she did not want to "reinforce fear" Pia let him be. Until one day, her dog desperately started to chew on his paws. At this point Pia had enough; as tears rolled down her cheeks in guilt of doing a disservice to his pal for so long, she invited him up the bed and gave him a soothing massage, hugging him and kissing him and telling him how sorry she was. She bought him a bed, put it in a closet and filled it up with toys. As years went by, his fear subsided; he learned to lie next to her and was able to finally sleep peacefully during a storm. Looks like positive associations were formed! I can sense counter-conditioning at play.

It is important to note that certain things dog owners do may not really "reinforce the fear", but the correct wording in this case would be "intensify it". For instance, if while your dog is afraid you would do something that further scares your dog, or if you would be scared and tense as well (dogs are masters in reading our emotions) or, if last but not least, you would force your fearful dog into a situation that terrifies him, then yes, that may make your dog more afraid than he already his, explains Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell in her blog "The Other End of the Leash". Indeed, exposing your dog to an intensified version of the stimulus he fears, may lead to sensitization, which is the total opposite of de-sensitization.

So petting, cuddling or comforting a dog when fearful may likely help, or at worse, may not do anything. A better approach than comforting, however may be investing some time and energy on classical counterconditioning, a behavior modification technique meant to change the dog's emotional response towards a feared stimulus by encouraging an emotion incompatible with fear.

So if a dog is fearful of storms, this would entail getting out all toys during a storm and encouraging play since play is incompatible with fear. To make the process clear, toys should be taken out at the first rumble of thunder and should be promptly removed the moment the storm ends. To work well, this work should be done under the threshold, since dogs may not want to play or eat treats if the frightening stimulus is too intense. In the case of storms, this would entail investing in CD recording of storms played at a low volume and then played gradually higher.T

Best of all, by classically counterconditioning your dog, not only will his emotional response change for the better, but the dog's fearful behaviors will go away as well. The dog is basically treated from the inside out.

Next read: Can you reinforce aggression?

Disclaimer: this article is not to be used as a substitute for professional hand-on advice, if your dog is displaying fear consult with a reputable trainer well-versed in positive dog behavior modification programs or better, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or Veterinary Behaviorist. By reading this article, you automatically accept this disclaimer

© Alexadry, Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, All Rights Reserved May 10, 2012


Author's experience as a dual certified dog trainer

Hetts, Suzanne Ph.D, Estep, Daniel. Ph.D Myth of Reinforcing Fear

Lindsay, Steve, 2000. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Volume One, pp. 85-90. Iowa, Iowa State University Press

McConnell Patricia, The Other End of the Leash Blog, "You Can't Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Reid, Pamela J. 1996. Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English how Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them. Oakland, CA.: James and Kenneth Publishers.

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Comments 46 comments

Compliance Doctor profile image

Compliance Doctor 4 years ago from Los Angeles, California

Very interesting article, very good information to be interworked into my daily routines with my three babes. Thank you for article well done.

Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 4 years ago from USA

This is great information - my dog is afraid of thunder. I have been trying to comfort him without being too comforting, and it is good to know that I don't have to. I'm going to try the counterconditioning.

wetnosedogs profile image

wetnosedogs 4 years ago from Alabama

Valuable information which I appreciate. I can understand a bit more the personalities of my dogs.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

This is really helpful - thanks. One of my dogs is afraid of the most random seeming things. She was a stray though, and adopted from the SPCA, so there's no telling what happened to her to cause these fears. I'm always trying to help her 'cheer up,' but wasn't sure what do to.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

I am happy you have found my hub on dog behavior "Can you reinforce fear" helpful. I used to also think you should not comfort fear because I read that in so many books and many trainers (even some reputable ones) used to say that. A better understanding of dogs and learning theory today seems to suggest otherwise.

Gloshei profile image

Gloshei 4 years ago from France

Very good article and have bookmarked to read again. We have a rescue Jinnie and she seems to be getting more nervous so this will be helpful, I will take my time so as not to miss anything.

Thanks interesting

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

I am happy to hear you liked my article on can you reinforce fear in dogs. hope it helps!

teddyweave 4 years ago

What happened to your last article? It was great!!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Teddy weave which is the last article you are talking about? not sure!

mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

Great Hub full of good advice on the subject of reinforcing fear in your dog. I think I have been guilty of just that.

I will heed your expert advice to attempt to help my dog live with her fear of thunder and firecrackers.

May I link this Hub into mine about my miniature schnauzer's fear of firecrackers?

I voted this Hub UP, and will share.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you, this is quite an interesting topic and this article has been shared on the Animal Behavior Matters website and other trainers. You are welcome to share it and link it. I am happy when articles turn out helpful. I hope the best! Kind regards!

DoItForHer 4 years ago

Perhaps the types of comfort can effect the behavior. If an owner is giving marshmallowy, pitiful comfort, that weak, unhealthy rewarding could unwittingly encourage fearful behavior.

I know if I were afraid and looking to a captain to help escape a sinking ship and he or she was unsure and blubbering in an effort to comfort me, I would feel more discomforted.

However, an educated person with a great attitude would likely dispel much of my fear.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Indeed, if you manifest insecurity and fear, your dog will read it which may cause the fear to intensify.. I did point this out in this paragraph "For instance, if while your dog is afraid you would do something that further scares your dog, or if you would be scared and tense as well (dogs are masters in reading our emotions) then yes, that may make your dog more afraid than he already his, explains Certified Applied Animal" Behaviorist Patricia McConnell. I have seen fear also form from the insecurity of the owner. If for instance, I would get up suddenly like startled from something, my dogs will share that emotion. Or if I would I would nervous about a vet appointment, my dogs would be more fearful than normal. I like your comparison of the sinking ship. Even with an airplane, we expect the captain and crew to be composed in case of an emergency!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Interestingly, one of my clients the other day called me for help with a dog that fears thunder storms. I went to her house one day when a t-storm was rolling in to help out with some desensitization and the first thing I saw was the owner getting up quickly to close the windows, make sure the kids were inside, and as a loud thunder cracked, she held her hands to her ears and acted over all anxious. Poor dog must have been picking up all these signals!. Owner then confessed that she was never fond of thunder as it reminded her of the war when she was in Europe. Not an easy situation as it seems like I need to work on both owner and dog!

DoItForHer 4 years ago

Alexadry, that is a tough one. Working with the dog is easy; working with the owner is hard. If the owner chooses not to better themselves, I've found that they won't make a single change in their dog over the long term despite all their initial good intentions. And then try to work with fear, which can be the hardest emotion to work with, makes it that much harder! Good luck.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for stopping by. I think if us trainers just trained the dog, our life would be much easier. The other day I showed a client how her dog could be trained easily, the dog learned like 5 commands in an hour session. She said over the phone her dog was stubborn, impossible to train and was thinking about getting rid of him. I then told her, "your dog is perfect, smart and willing to learn and there is nothing wrong with him, it is all up to you now"....

DoItForHer 4 years ago

I can train the heck out of a dog, but the owner thwarts me every time. Even the simplest of tasks are beyond what I can teach. I have almost no understanding of what is in peoples' minds and how to approach that when it comes to obedience training.

I even wrote a Hub about excuses (one of my better Hubs) regarding dog training. It is my second poorest performing Hub with the one about discipline being the worst. Clearly, I'm doing something wrong.

Yah, this is getting off-topic, but this is a subject of high value to me. Thanks!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

As your hub about excuses goes (I took s peek), I fully agree that poor training is the result of people not being willing to change. I don't think you did anything wrong with that hub, I actually found it very motivational, instructive and it flows well; but it's just that the law of search engines is quite unpredictable, and I yet have to find a pattern as to why some hubs just don't perform as they should. I think if perhaps you add pictures, you may up the chances for Google to like your hubs more and perhaps if you tweet them and share them on your social networks you may get a higher chance of them getting noticed and perform better? of course, there are no guarantees, but I am sure a bit of tweaking would not hurt, my very best wishes!

DoItForHer 4 years ago

The formatting is weak, which makes it unappealing to look at. Pictures really spruce up a good piece of writing sometimes to a great piece. The writing was decent, though. But I still think the content is not a popular topic; dealing with weak excuses is not a popular topic in real life, either.

I should clean it up as it means a lot to me. Or I could make up some excuse as to why I never seem to get around to it.

People don't like it when you call them out on their stuff; good way to lose friends and readers!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Lol, well maybe they are too lazy to find out why they are making excuses in the first place! Jokes aside, if it makes you feel better, if you google "excuses for dog training" you are on the first page of Google, position #5. Not bad at all! Now if people would be less lazy, I am sure you would get a good amount of traffic;)

reptilia profile image

reptilia 4 years ago

Awesome, well written and much needed hub. So many people seem to have magical thinking when it come to fear and dogs.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for stopping by repitilia!

midget38 profile image

midget38 4 years ago from Singapore

Great hub, Alexandry. I like the counterconditioning strategy for dealing with fear. Will apply to my little westie who has a fear of getting her nails trimmed!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks, I always recommend applying behavior mod with a professional for the first times for safety and to properly gauge threshold levels, best wishes with your westie!

Monis Mas profile image

Monis Mas 4 years ago

This is a very interesting, but also a beautiful hub! You really know a lot about dogs, thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for stopping by Monis! I am happy you liked this hub on the topic of reinforcing dog fear. Kind regards!

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

Excellent analysis. As a letter carrier it is very important for me to understand canine fear because I encounter it every day. Great hub!

alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

I am happy you found this hub helpful Mel Carriere, I am sure many encounters are fear-based and the dogs are just sending distance-increasing signals. Kind regards!

Sinea Pies profile image

Sinea Pies 3 years ago from Northeastern United States

Great the photo! Voted up and interesting.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks Sinea Pines!

moonlake profile image

moonlake 3 years ago from America

Our dog fears velcro. We have finally got him not to freak out when we put his jacket on. It's way to cold here for his little body to go out in the cold without some kind of protection.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

That's awesome Moonlake! Gotta keep those doggies warm in the winter! My girl just yesterday for the first time ever started acting worried about the smoke alarm which goes off for even the smallest sign of smoke from my over. We started playing fetch--which she loves-- and she luckily seemed to forget all about it.

Rebecca Furtado profile image

Rebecca Furtado 3 years ago from Anderson, Indiana

Good hub, um my herd of dogs and cats form a giant pet pile during storms. Fear makes strange bed fellows. I am sharing this one.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

That's funny, I feel fore your pets though,T-storms can be scary! Thanks for sharing!

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

This is very interesting information for all of us who love our pets. Happy to share this information with others on HP and also pinning.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Thank you for sharing and pinning PeggyW! This article is close to my heart as it was featured on a scientific blog by an organization I respect.

grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

Very helpful. We tend to forget that fear is a real emotion in dogs, and often think it's funny. I must confess -- when I want all my dogs off the bed I scare them with a hairdryer. Better find better ways to do it.

susansisk profile image

susansisk 2 years ago from Georgia, USA

Very good article! We have a dog that is very fearful of dogs she does not know. She can not be taken to a dog park, because dogs sense her fear, and often try to dominate her. This just makes it worse.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Thanks susansisk! Good to hear you protect her by not putting her in overwhelming situations! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Kind regards!

grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

This is a very helpful hub. Our dog, Ashley Belle Pumpernickel is scared of thunder and rain. She usually sleeps in a closed area outside, but she will pound on the door relentlessly, so we allow her to sleep in our room. It's very sad when a dog is fearful and the fear is ignored. Your article is very useful and will help others see that a dog's fear should be taken seriously.

ladyguitarpicker profile image

ladyguitarpicker 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

I have always petted my dogs during storms and it makes them relax. The dog I have now is so relaxed she has fear of nothing. Great Hub.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

A wonderful testament that you cannot reinforce fear. Thanks for sharing!

Maggie Bonham profile image

Maggie Bonham 2 years ago from Missoula, Montana

Nice article. Way back when us dog experts were told that coddling could increase fear, I've owned dogs who were afraid of thunder and got worse over time. Nothing I did or didn't do mattered. So I pretty much have decided it's a behavior that may be inherited given that the most fearful were herding breeds. So, I gave them a safe place to stay and didn't make a big deal out of the weather. If they wanted reassurance they were okay, I gave it to them, but mostly we kept things calm and normal, working around their fears.

Then again, I had one dog who would challenge the weather when it hailed. He was so affronted that the sky pelted him that he roared at it and wouldn't come inside. Guess who had to "rescue" him from the hail?

alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Hello Maggie , thank you for sharing your experience in the matter. My male Rottweiler hates hail as well. He used to tolerate it well, until one day in March he got sensitized when we lived in Missouri and got hail as big as golf balls. The noise of it pounding on our metal roof was extremely loud. Our reaction to it may have also played a role as we were making excited, yet concerned, remarks of how big it was and how it was going to ruin our car and the chances of a tornado coming through. The hail was so big and heavy it made a big gap in our mailbox. So afterward, if it just hailed a little bit he would start whining and pacing as soon as he would hear it bouncing off the roof. Luckily, it rarely hails now that I live in Arizona.

Maggie Bonham profile image

Maggie Bonham 2 years ago from Missoula, Montana

Hi Adrienne!

He's actually not afraid of it. He's more ready to fight with the weather, which can drive you nuts when it thunders. He's an oddball of a dog, but we're fond of him. I have weird dog stories about him because he makes odd leaps of inference I've never seen even my smartest dogs do. Alas, he is nearly 14 years old and I suspect he won't be with us much longer, but he certainly has lived a colorful life.

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norlawrence 5 months ago from California

Great article. So much good information. Thanks

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    Adrienne Janet Farricelli (alexadry)1,689 Followers
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    Adrienne Farricelli is a former veterinary hospital assistant and now a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant and author of dog books.

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