Is comforting fearful dogs good or bad?
We love our dogs so much. Our fearful dogs break our hearts when their ears are back, tail is tucked or they tremble from fear. More painful still is when we just don’t know how to make it better for them.
Somewhere along the way, many of us came to believe that comforting our dogs when they are afraid could reinforce the fear. Like giving a piece of toast from your breakfast plate reinforces begging. These two scenarios are not equivalent. But there’s a pervasive myth out there that they are equivalent. And even some dog professionals still espouse it.
Let’s take a closer look, because understanding best practices for handling fearful dogs is important. As Jean Donaldson puts it “fear is easy to get, but a bugger to get rid of it.” Luckily, there is quality information available to us.
“Imagine you’re afraid of snakes and in a room full of them. A friend hugs you and tries to console you. Will this make you more afraid of snakes?” Of course not, but that does not mean it will make you less afraid of snakes either.
We often expect that what we do or what we ourselves might find comforting ought to comfort others. But this is not always the case. Some people find comfort in a hug and a chat. Some people find comfort in isolation and a stiff drink. Dogs also differ in what they find comforting.
My own dog, Buddha, believed the world was coming to an end (or so I thought) when he heard thunder or fireworks. I would think about just how afraid I would need to be to actually tremble. The prospect always upset me terribly, and I felt helpless. I would fuss over him, but nothing I did made it better. Buddha’s thunder and firework fears slowly got worse. I was certain it was entirely my fault. I thought my attempts for coddling made his fear worse, that I was reinforcing it.
Because Buddha’s trembling worsened. It no longer took that first bang of thunder before the fear raised its ugly head. It was wind, rain and other things that I didn’t even notice. The things that predicted big, scary booms, now triggered the fear all on their own.
But it wasn’t about the reinforcement. In fact it wasn’t about me at all! Once I stopped trying to comfort Buddha in the ways I thought should be comforting to him, possibilities opened up. It turns out Buddha finds comfort in the car during big bad booms. So I leave the garage door open with the car door ajar. He does not find comfort from me and that’s okay. For a while a bandana with D.A.P (Dog Appeasement Pheromones) gave him some relief. And he is now on medication that helps him cope significantly.
I thought, like so many do, I had reinforced the fears, prior to my studies at The Academy for Dog Trainers. It turns out you cannot reinforce fear, because it is an emotion. Animals don’t experience emotions in order to gain reinforcement. Fear is about the scary thing.
Buddha got worse because of classical conditioning (weather predicting booms) and because of a natural behavioral phenomenon called “sensitization” occurred.
How can we help fearful dogs? Keep trying and keep track.
When your dog is afraid and you try something to nudge it in the “slightly less fearful” direction, keep a close eye on the effect your measure is having: are you or aren’t you seeing improvement? The improvement might be slight but there it is. Here are some things to try.
- If possible, immediately get your dog away from what is scaring him. Sometimes you can’t. Thunderstorms and fireworks, for instance, you might be stuck with.
- Try to redirect your dog’s attention. Eating chicken, turkey, a special bone or other novel things he does not regularly get can get his mind off the scary thing, but still allow him to be in its presence. Play his favorite game – fetch, tug or whatever else he loves. Often when you simply pair a slightly fearful experience with lots and lots of fun, the scary thing becomes not so scary any more. If your dog will not eat or play, get some distance away from what is causing the fear and try again.
- Some people have had success with calming scents like Lavendar or D.A.P. (dog-appeasing pheromone), and some have found relief with Thundershirts or various body wraps. These are in the can’t-hurt-might-help category. Remember though: if the fear doesn’t trend towards better, move on to something else.
If, no matter what you’ve tried, you see no improvement, or you see it getting worse, get to your veterinarian. Then seek a dog professional who is competent at Desensitization and Counterconditioning. Do not let fear go untreated.
Whether your dog’s fear is rational in your mind or not, trying to get him to suck it up will not make it go away. Vow to help him through it. Tackle it in a way that works. Don’t let him live in fear. Some how, some way: comfort him.
Until next time, Have Fun & Enjoy Your Dog!
Jody Karow – CTC
Your Personal Puppy Expert, Dog Life Coach & Online Dog Trainer
P.S. Don’t forget to check out our online dog training program for living your best life with your dog!