Go Ahead Comfort That Scared Dog!

Sunny my fearful dog

Sunny my fearful dog

I’m not sure why it is people are so reluctant to accept that you can comfort, or reward a dog when it is afraid and NOT be telling the dog it’s ok to be afraid. Doctors give little kids lollipops, we hug people who are nervous, we hold the hand of someone who is afraid and we are not causing them to become more afraid. If we are we should rethink what we’re doing!

Some owners will say, “When I pet my dog, or comfort my dog when she’s afraid it doesn’t help, she gets worse.”

The conclusion they come to is that comforting doesn’t work. How about the conclusion that what they’re doing is not in fact comforting the dog, regardless of their intentions. If indeed they were actually doing something that did provide the dog with comfort or a reward that mattered to them, they would likely see an improvement in the dogs behavior. Why? Because anything that you can do to lessen a dog’s fear or anxiety is going to help them behave more appropriately, or learn how to behave more appropriately.

Studies dating back to the 1940’s proved that you do not reinforce fear by ‘rewarding’ it. It just doesn’t happen, our brains don’t work that way, and there’s a difference between how behaviors are learned and how fear is experienced.


9 comments so far

  1. Katie on

    Why don’t you sign your name or have an about you page?

    There are way too many people out there posting stuff about dog training with no credentials. My assumption would be, IF you had credentials you would post them.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment! I am new to the blogging scene so needed to be reminded of the etiquette.

      My name is Debbie Jacobs. I am the author of the http://www.fearfuldogs.com website.

      I don’t blame you for being skeptical about what you read online. There are lots of people, with certification and without, writing about dogs, making videos about dogs and even creating tv shows about dogs, that are not basing their techniques on actual research that has been done regarding how dogs learn new behaviors.

      I am not currently certified as a CPDT, but hope to be in the coming year. Over the years I have volunteered with our local humane society, training volunteers to work with dogs and assisting on abuse and neglect cases. I have also worked with rescue groups in Puerto Rico, helping to find homes for satos (any sato owners out there?). I have had over 100 dogs stay with me as short or long term fosters. I currently operate a kennel-free boarding business for ‘good dogs’ out of my home. I will be helping to teach a shy dog class next month and have also assisted with agility classes. I am not much into the competition scene but have trained my dogs in agility, obedience and rally.

      I am currently reading Stanley Coren’s book The Intelligence of Dogs which is dated but I found it at our used book store. Just finished Adam Miklosi’s book on Dog Behaviour, Evolution and Coginition and Patricia McConnell’s For The Love of a Dog. Not sure what’s next. May have to re-read Control Unleashed in case I end up assisting in a class under the same name. I hope to make it to Karen Pryor’s 3 day clicker workshop in March.

      I hope that this helps fill you in on who I am and what my ‘credentials’ are. I’ll work on sorting out how to create a page about myself and appreciate the suggestion.

  2. johnny on

    aVQmKI Thanks for good post

  3. Janet Finlay on

    Thanks for a great post. It is an important point and one often missed.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting Janet. Not only is it a point often missed, it’s one totally misunderstood.

  4. Julia on

    Hello Debbie.

    I’m new to this don’t-pet-your-dog-when-he’s-scared-or-in-pain idea. Really, I notice it increases the fear or pain (like when he was attacked by a cat today…he’s a 3 months old lhasa apso).
    But my question is what should I do in such cases?


    • fearfuldogs on

      The idea is that if we can do something which ‘comforts’ the dog it’s ok to do it. The thing is that the definition of ‘comfort’ has to be based on the dog’s perception of what is comforting and what is not. Sometimes being handled is just annoying, even if someone’s motivation is to make you feel better. The way to deal with a dog is much the same as how you would deal with a young child. You acknowledge their distress and then you do whatever you can to change their mood. In the case of a pup being scared I provide them a safe place to go to, pet or hold them IF they like it, and then ‘jolly’ them. We do this with kids all the time, “I hope you didn’t make a hole in the sidewalk when you fell! Did you? Want some ice cream?” With dogs we can try to engage them in play or feed them super good treats. The goal is for them to be able to experience a stressful situation and then come down from it as quickly as possible. This is what resiliency is all about. “Did that big kitty scare you? Let’s eat some chicken and not give him any.” Of course your dog will not understand the words but your tone will likely be reassuring and the dog can move on to the next startling life event and have the skills to recover from it.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks Dani. The fearfuldogs.com website has a page dedicated to storm phobias. There’s even a free ebook you can download. Stubborn can mean over threshold or overwhelmed.

  5. Dani on

    Thank you, Debbie, for this wonderful post! My dog has really bad anxiety issues – he’s had some pretty tough times that have definitely made his anxiety worse. I was away from home when he was attacked by a coyote 3 years ago and had to be hospitalized for more than 2 weeks. During this time, I could only visit him every few days. I sent my mom there when I couldn’t go, so he wouldn’t think he was forgotten…and so she could send me pictures so I could see how he is doing.
    Needless to say, after this he developed severe separation anxiety. If I left him in the house by himself for even 15 minutes he would start tearing up the doors and windows. We lost our deposit on the last apartment we lived in because we were unable to fully repair the extensive damage he did to our doors and windows – but we did the best we could.

    Point is, during all of this he also developed a pretty severe phobia of storms. He will have a full-on panic attack, shaking uncontrollably and breathing hard out of his mouth and slobering. His tongue turns really red and his hair starts falling out. Most of the time I can soothe him by holding him really tight and rocking him while I speak soothingly or sing to him. Usually once that’s over he’s only a little scared for the remainder of the thunderstorm. He will resign to cuddling up beside me and going to sleep. Well…as long as there’s not another really really really loud and startling thunder clap. Then it’s pretty much back at square one, but that doesn’t happen every time.
    point is, I fully and totally believe that if I didn’t comfort him that he would continue to panic until he hurt himself. That’s what he did when he was suffering from separation anxiety – he filed down almost all of his front teeth by chewing on metal to try and escape. Oh, btw he no longer has severe separation anxiety. We worked on it and worked on it until he was finally comfortable with being alone. He even has his own over-stuffed arm chair that he sleeps in while I”m at work (before, that chair would have been chewed to shreds)….he also sleeps in it when I’m doing something he’s not interested in – which he used to never willingly leave my side. I’m so proud of him.

    Anyway, so I decided to research to see if there were more effective ways to comfort him during a storm (which I have learned a few from reading this article and the comments you’ve provided) and was appalled to see the number of articles that are so against doggie comfort!
    I mean, I understand that you shouldn’t coddle and swoon over your dog for every single uncomfortable situation they may encounter…afterall, you wouldn’t offer that sort of advice for a child, either…but I think that most people are forgetting the most important thing: You have to get to know your dog and figure out what is best for him/her in particular situations. Just as if you were with a child. It is a huge dedication when one acquires a dog. It’s up to the owner or pet parent to learn how to train and treat and comfort and love their dog – and I think that’s where many people need to be focusing. You can read all the articles you want about how to train a dog properly, or reinforce good behavior properly, and if you don’t know your dog you can STILL make a mistake and reinforce bad behavior because the situation you read about didn’t apply to your dog’s unique personality.
    But I think you’ve touched that aspect perfectly. Thank you!

    We are in the middle of a storm right now and I’ve been racking my brain to find some way to comfort my dog more efficiently, and it didn’t even occur to me to try and build him a safe place on his chair! I’m going to build him a pillow fort and see how he likes that – he loves it on the couch when it’s not storming.
    Also, I will try the “cookie party”, I think he will like that. He’s onto the treats…he knows that when I bring them out when they aren’t playing that something is up. I used to “bribe” him when I left the house to try and get him to associate treats with me leaving. It backfired and now if I give him treats when he’s just sitting there, he thinks I’m up to something and gets nervous. I should have engaged him in play….”never give anything for free” is my motto, now. In other words, if you want a treat you gotta do a trick (or something that’s worth reinforcing)… my mistake and I have to fix it…
    So, I’ll try to engage him better. He’s just so stubborn, I’ll ask him to come play and he’s like “nah, I’m good just sitting here”. My other dog is much better at getting him to come out of his shell, but it’s hard to get her to go and get him to play.

    That turned out longer than I wanted, but I can’t decide where to take off from so I’m just going to leave it

    Thanks again!

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