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The Listen Dog Blog

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Why You Shouldn't Fuss Over A Fearful Dog - And What You Can Do Instead

By listendogtraining, Jan 4 2017 08:00AM

I know it’s hard to resist cuddling and attempting to sooth your dog when he’s quivering with fear as a result of a loud firework display or an intense storm, but reassuring a dog by offering affection and attention whenever the dog demonstrates fearful behaviour is a bad idea, because it will only serve to reinforce the dog’s fearful behaviour, rather than eradicate it.

If your dog receives a reward every time he behaves fearfully, he’s more likely to display this behaviour next time, and increase this behaviour, rather than cease it. It is a basic principle of animal behaviour and training - documented by B.F. Skinner when he discovered he could systematically change the behaviour of rats by giving them a food reward when they pressed a lever – that rewarding a behaviour – even if that behaviour is as a result of an emotional response - makes it more likely to reoccur. As Thorndike’s Law of effect states, responses that produce rewards tend to increase in frequency – therefore a fear response, which produces an over-attentive and affectionate owner (rewarding for the dog!), is likely to increase in frequency rather than decrease.

If you plan to use treats as part of a behaviour modification program to help overcome a dog’s fear or phobia, timing is critical, in order to ensure that you do not inadvertently use the treat to reward the fearful response. Instead we need to desensitise the dog to whatever triggers his/her anxiety and combine this with forming a positive association, instead of a negative one. Of course, as per Thorndike’s Law of Effect, if you treat the dog for behaving anxiously, he will only continue to do so. Instead, we must attempt to distract the dog, or calm his anxious behaviour, long enough for him to display a positive behaviour at the presentation of his fear-trigger, which we can then immediately reward.

It is worth remembering the valuable role that the olfactory system and the dog’s sense of smell can play in this process; the olfactory system bypasses the usual decision-making process, and is linked directly to memory and emotion. As a result, we can take advantage of it to recreate a positive association where there was once a negative one; engaging the dog’s nose with a super-smelly treat can help to override the dog’s usual reaction (fear) giving us the opportunity to reward a better behaviour, and thus, encourage this as a preferred response, going forward... timing really is crucial!

As an owner it is also important to lead by example, and show no anxiety regarding the stimulus yourself; more than likely the dog will look to you for guidance, and take note of your actions and state of mind as indicators of whether his fear is truly justified or not.

Eventually, with plenty of repetition, patience and determination, we can turn the dog’s response around, so that he is either ambivalent towards the trigger that once scared him, having been shown (because we cannot ‘tell’ as we would be able to with a child who was afraid of something), repeatedly over a long period of time that nothing bad ever occurs, and ONLY good ever comes of it, or he might even respond by looking for the treat he has come to expect.

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