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Reinforcing Fear: Why the Debate?


People with dogs who are fearful of certain things or events have probably heard at least one of these statements as they looked for ways to help their companions “get over” their fears: “Do not give your fearful dog attention or you will reinforce his fear.” “Do not tell a fearful dog ‘it’s okay’ since you are giving him praise or permission to be fearful.” “Never pick up a fearful puppy or small dog since you are reinforcing his fear.” “Do not pet a dog that is fearful since you are rewarding his fear and he will become more fearful.”

For many years most of us certainly did believe that if you pet or comforted your dog during a fearful period, he would become more fearful. However, in-depth research which has existed for quite some time but never put into popular literature proves this was and is not true.

Research tells us that fear is a basic emotion experienced by all living beings. While fear is a complex emotion, it’s fair to say that it is a system designed to help insure the safety of living creatures and thus a fairly necessary emotion. In the wild, fear is an adaptive behavior and serves to help animals survive. Most beings are hard-wired to respond to dangers in order to survive and/or avoid injury. The expression of fear is linked to emotions and, as all of us humans have surely discovered firsthand, is not always under our control.

Science has learned that animals’ brains have a larger amygdala and a smaller cerebral cortex than humans. Since the amygdala modulates emotion, and the cortex governs rational thought, we can assume that animals feel emotions on a much more intense scale than we do. They are also not able to process rational thought in the same way that we do. It also makes sense then that rational thought, which is suppressed in humans by the neurochemicals that are released during fearful episodes, are completely shut off in animals. (Lindsay, 2000) In simple terms it means that, for example, the dog may exhibit extreme fear of the rumbling and cracking thunder but does not have the capability to be self-calming by telling himself (as we humans do) “relax, it’s just noise, it cannot hurt me, it will be over soon.”

So, how can you help your frightened dog? You will be happy to know that comfort and touch are not forbidden for the dog when he is afraid and won’t make the fear worse! Even if your attempts do not alleviate the fear, trying to help is not going to make it any worse than it already is. Counterconditioning is one of the most popular ways to help animals change their emotional and behavioral responses. There are two types of counterconditioning that can be used: classical counterconditioning and operant counterconditioning. How you can try to help your dog is best explained by citing a few examples:

Classical Counterconditioning – Something that normally provokes fear in the dog is presented to him and then and linked with something he normally finds pleasant. The goal is to replace the anxiety or distress response with that of being calmer. For example, a dog might be fearful of another dog, resulting in growling, barking, panting and more. If a neutral dog (one who doesn’t respond or seems to care about dogs) is presented enough times at a comfortable distance from your dog, your dog’s fear should begin to subside as he starts to realize that the neutral dog is not a threat. When your dog expects something really good at the sight of the other dog the reflexive behaviors (i.e. growling, barking, etc.) should begin to subside.

Operant Counterconditioning – What you want to do here is to teach your dog to engage in an entirely different behavior than he normally does at the sight or sound of whatever it is that usually causes him to act fearfully. Play can be used effectively here if the dog is one that normally enjoys playing. For a dog afraid of thunder, the first hint of a rumble of thunder should evoke a cheerful invitation to engage in a favorite play activity. Hopefully the offer will bring about a different behavior and the dog’s emotion will change as a result. The intent is to teach the dog to engage in a different behavior during the thunder. Dogs that do not usually play would, of course, need to be offered something else. Some petting, massaging and your calm demeanor might actually be just what the dog needs to relax himself and feel less fearful.

Give it a try if you have a dog that is fearful of certain things or situations. Know that even if your canine companion is just too frightened to participate in play or enjoy a treat, your consoling efforts will not make him more fearful. The condition will either get better or remain the same—it won’t get worse. If your soothing voice and reassuring touch does not seem to help him consider making an appointment with a professional behaviorist to see what other methods might alleviate or lesson the symptoms. Just don’t be afraid yourself to offer those hugs and cuddles!

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