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Canine Fear Confusion

Sometimes I feel l like the more I read the more confused I get about training a fearful dog and what can go wrong if you reward the wrong things. Essentially, I believe you cannot make a real fear worse by comforting a fearful dog. Despite what the tough-love people want us to believe, my understanding is that using classical conditioning makes fears better, not worse. Yet, I read some things in Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s book The Well-Adjusted Dog that have me doubting myself again. Help!?!

In a chapter called “The Fearful Dog,” there’s a box titled “What Not to Do,” and one of the four items listed is:

“Do not coddle or overly sympathize with a dog when he exhibits inappropriate fear; this reinforces that his response is okay when it’s not.”

When he talks about storm phobic dogs and using the Storm Defender cape, Dodman says again, “… the owner is then instructed to pay the dog no attention (comforting, as I said earlier in the context of animal fears, can make matters worse).”

Later in a chapter on dog adoptions, he talks about fearful dogs and says, “Make sure that dogs of this disposition have your support but not your sympathy (which can reinforce fear).”

Having interviewed Dr. Dodman recently, I can tell you that without a doubt he means exactly what he says. And, he certainly isn’t some yahoo just spouting off. The man is one of the top experts in the field.

So, now I’m stumped.

Some of my fearful dog / positive reinforcement pals on Twitter have linked recently to other top-name behaviorists writing on this issue of fear and reinforcement, but I can’t find those references right now (symptom of stress and time constraints).

So, if someone has a way to CLEARLY explain these distinctions, I’d love to hear it.

But, while we’re on the subject of Dr. Dodman’s book, I want to also include this quote, which I enjoyed a lot:

“Remember, many owners will not tolerate a growl from their dog — let alone a snap or bite — though they may be far from temperamentally perfect themselves. How reasonable is it to hold a dog to standards higher than our own? No aggression, no complaints — ever — is not a reasoanble standard of expectation for anyone or any dog. Child grabs dog’s tail and pulls it — dog turns and snaps (doesn’t even bite) — dog is ejected from household. It should be the owners who are ejected for not protecting their dog from the child’s unwelcome advances. “

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Hilary - June 11, 2009

I just read an article in the APDT journal about this, and one of the authors, a highly regarded trainer and behaviorist, said that comforting and petting a fearful dog during storms is okay… she said it works with her dog, anyway. But it’s so contrary to what I learned (the Dodman way). I’d love to hear further comments about this, as my dogs are frightened during storms and firecrackers.

Roxanne Hawn - June 11, 2009

Thanks everyone. These are the quotes from the McConnell pieces that made the most sense to me. While she’s talking about thunderstorms and barking, in these examples, I found them helpful to our reality of both generalized and specific fears:

“Fear is designed to be aversive, that’s why it is an effective way of affecting behavior and keeping animals out of trouble when they encounter something that might hurt them. Fear is aversive enough that no amount of petting or sweet talk is going to make your dog more likely to shiver and shake when she hears thunder rolling as the clouds billow and the rains begin.”

“Secondly, motivation is key here. If a dog is barking at visitor from fear, then having the visitor toss treats or toys does NOT reinforce the barking! It decreases it, because the emotion of fear subsides and it is the emotion of fear that drives the behavior. Once the dog associates visitors with treats, her behavior changes to body wags and happy dances. (Visitor = chicken! I love chicken! I love visitors!) This is standard Classical Conditioning, and I can tell you from 22 years of experience that it works incredibly well with lots and lots of dogs.”

KB - June 11, 2009

I’m as confused as you are. For years, my dog was terrified of various odd things, and I’d use classical conditioning to try to make her like them better. It didn’t work. Now, she freaks out if I start offering her treats when she’s near something that scares her. She seems to think that the offering of treats validates her view that it’s truly an extremely scary thing.

What I’ve found by trial and error (I never read Dodman’s books) is that I need to pretend that I don’t even notice the scary thing or that she’s scared. Then, over time (days, weeks, or even months), she’ll gradually get up the nerve to check it out herself with absolutely no help from me. That sounds a lot like Dodman’s view, doesn’t it?

Maybe, as another commenter said, the best technique depends on the dog.

Holly - June 10, 2009

Here’s another article from Patricia McConnell re: fearful responses

My lab mix does not care for fireworks-type sounds. She slept right through a rough thunderstorm the other night, but a firecracker goes off and she gets concerned. Sometimes she will try to hide in the laundry room, behind furniture or in a closet – somewhere I assume she feels is “safe”. I think just leaving her in the corner to tremble & fret wouldn’t do ANY good and certainly wouldn’t eliminate her fear. I have used DAP and have a diffuser in the living room. Distractions don’t always work, so in that case I would just move her to a different place and just hang out with her. Not making a big deal about it, just sitting with her and talking/petting seems to help.

It seems like it may be one of those “it depends” scenarios because like many other training/behavior related topics, there is no one-size-fits-all. Consider the level of fear, frequency, dog’s reaction, dog’s personality, human guardian’s knowledge/expertise/commitment, etc. etc. …

I will say that I very much like Nicholas Dodman and have read his books Dogs Behaving Badly, The Dog Who Loved To Much & If Only They Could Speak.

Elayne - June 10, 2009

I was going to send you to those Patricia McConnell links but I see someone beat me to it.

One of the things I like about Patricia McConnell is that she’s honest about how much is unknown about animal behavior and how our knowledge and the research is ever changing.

I don’t buy into the notion of not comforting a fearful dog. If it’s thundering and Strummer or Cody crawl into my lap you bet I’m going to let them. I don’t make a big gooey fuss over them but I’ll quietly stroke them and let them stay as long as they want. It doesn’t seem to help stop them from being afraid (they still pant and whine) but it certainly doesn’t make them worse and at least they know I’m there for them.

The only problem I can see with comforting a fearful dog is if the person is inadvertently doing something that is scaring the dog and making it worse. For example if the owner is upset and nervous about the dog being scared and conveys it through their tone of voice and movements then yeah I can see that being detrimental but if you can comfort your dog and remain calm and confident yourself then I can’t see the harm.

Miriam - June 10, 2009

Think of working with a fearful dog like a child who fell and needs a band-aid. Child A falls of a swing, scraps knee, throws a wild fit and mom coddles and comforts, buys ice cream, holds kid all day and avoids the swing set for rest of child’s life.
Child B does the same. but mom responds with – oh what happened – applies band aid with a kiss and hug. Tells child, after a quick pout/cry session that he/she will be fine, and helps child back to swing set but keeps her eye on child to make sure child feels safe.

Some children will respond quickly and get over fear of falling with an action plan for when it happens again. Others may take more time. The child who was rewarded with added attention, ice cream and fear from parent will never swing again!

Neither child was ignored or treated as if the fall (fear) was unacceptable. A calm and healthy reaction helps to create a calm and happy dog…eventually. Sometimes it can take a loooong time, but don’t give up!

A lot of people keep trying new methods rather than taking the time and it further confuses/scares the dog.

Call me or email me privately if you want more info. I work with fearful dogs and patience, confidence in your methods and calm reactions are the keys to success. Also, create a realistic view of what the success looks like to you!

Betty - June 10, 2009

I love the final quote you posted.

I do think holding a fearful dog and talking calmly with them helps; I’m no expert, of course. Our little Sunkis’d hated booming noises..thunder, fireworks, etc. She would go to my husband and he would hold her and stroke her and she would stop panting and whining. That was the result we wanted, so we continued down that path and she was fine. Everyone feels differently, I know; just wanted to say that it worked for us.

Dog-geek - June 10, 2009

The way Patricia McConnell (also an expert in canine fear issues)distinguishes is that fear is an emotion, not a behavior. Reinforcement deals with behaviors. You cannot reinforce an emotion, but it may be possible to reinforce behaviors associated with the emotion. Here are a few recent posts she’s written on the topic:

barrie - June 10, 2009

I’ll let Debbie and co. answer your actual question but I know that I was always taught not to coddle a fearful dog not because it taught the dog to continue to behave that way but because if I act like whatever is upsetting the dog is a big deal then the dog is like OMG if Mom is freaked out then I REALLY should be freaked out!

Based on technical definitions that could fit under ‘reinforcing the fear’ I suppose.

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