Can you Reinforce Your Dog's Fear?
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.
Soft Chews for Exhibiting Nervousness
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.
Can fear be reinforced?
For further reading
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