Two concepts

When speaking recently with a trainer/friend who I helped out with a shy dog class, she told me that one of the participants, a skilled dog handler who had worked for years with rescue dogs, mentioned that she learned two important concepts in the class.

1. You do not reinforce fear in a dog; by being kind to them, moving them away from something that scares them, moving something that scares them away, or giving them a food treat when they are scared. Think about it, when you take a sad little kid out for ice cream are you hoping to make them sadder? When the doctor offers your child a sheet of Mickey Mouse stickers when they come into the office, scared and apprehensive, do you chide the doctor for reinforcing fear in your child? (Things can come to predict scary events for both people and dogs, so if the doctor handed the child a sticker prior to each needle jab or intrusive temperature taking, in that case the sticker would let them know something bad was coming up and the anticipation of it would begin.)

Emotions, when rewarded, usually decrease in their intensity. Behaviors, when rewarded, usually increase in frequency. Think about how this applies to people and consider correlations with dogs. We share similar parts of the brain that manages this stuff so it’s often a reasonable comparison.

2. Dogs don’t learn easily, if at all, when they are too anxious, scared or stressed. The point at which operant learning effectively stops will vary from dog to dog and situation to situation, but by realizing this, she understood why dogs did not respond to either rewards or punishment when they were behaving in a fearful or reactive way.

I believe that by understanding these two concepts you are laying the foundation for effective and humane handling of fearful dogs. Just something to think about.

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6 comments so far

  1. Susi (KnobNots) on

    A positive and helpful message that I think too many dog owners forget while venting their own frustration and/or anger at a dog. Well done.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Susi, I appreciate you visiting the blog and taking the time to comment. Oh and compliments, well they are also always appreciated. 😉

  2. Shiloh on

    I too am a rescue and have spent 2 plus years working w/Mum to overcome my fears and anxiety. Your blog is interesting and informative; it’s important people learn to give us our space and allow us to take our time. Our struggle has had it’s rough patches but we make a little headway each day. Thanx for posting the videos too; seeing is believing. Keep up the good work!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Changing a brain takes time. I hope you have been able to find activities in life that bring you joy. Fearful dogs get very good at being afraid and often need practice and help at feeling good. The tail wags are worth the effort!

  3. Mary on

    I’m reading your blog post, and it isn’t clear to me… Are you saying it’s okay to reward emotion but not behavior?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for asking this question Mary! I was thinking about writing another blog post called, “About those concepts”, because this is a question that folks often have.

      If you reward an emotion, any emotion, it is likely to decrease. So if a dog is afraid and you give it cheese (and it can eat the cheese), the fear is likely to decrease. If a dog scratches at the door to go out, and the door opens, it will likely scratch the door again in the future if he wants to go. So if you like the behavior, reward it, and you’ll see more of it.

      BUT if the emotion trumps the behavior, in that the behavior is a reaction and is driven by the emotion, a fearful dog lunges at a stranger for example, and you give the dog cheese before it lunges (because once it crosses a certain threshold it will not likely be able to eat), you will see the emotion decrease and the behavior is also likely to decrease. The dog is reacting out of fear and not ‘thinking’, so is not learning operantly, but rather is making associations via classical conditioning. So you will not be rewarding the fearful behavior and seeing more lunging. It feels good to see strangers so I’m going to sit and wait for a treat, no need to lunge.

      An example of this is walking into a shelter with barking dogs and start tossing one treats. The barking behavior, which is usually a response to stress, fear and anxiety, decreases, rather than increases. The treats make the dog feel better.

      Make sense?

      Think about the advice we give people to ‘play hard to get’. Why do we say that? What are we ‘not rewarding’ and hoping will increase. What are we afraid of rewarding and having decrease?


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