Coddling controversy

egg in egg cupWords are pretty cool things. You can be driving along with a friend and shout out ‘PIZZA!’ and barring the fact that you might be prone to random, nonsensical outbursts, your friend will understand, “I’m hungry. I’d like to eat pizza. You willing to stop and eat pizza with me? Pull into that pizzeria please.” Not bad for a single word.

I may not like the meaning of many words, like ‘torture’ or ‘tsunami’, there are others that I don’t like for less obvious reason. One is the use of ‘nom nom’ on social media to imply that someone is eating something or thinking about how good something will be to eat. It bothers me, I don’t know why for sure, but I have to resist clicking the ‘unfollow’ button when someone uses it. Nothing personal really, the phrase just bugs me. There is another word that bothers me when I hear it used in context with the handling of fearful dogs, the word ‘coddle’. It’s a fairly benign sounding word, almost silly if you try to say it five times fast, but it annoys me because, like the word ‘leader’ it means nothing because it can mean anything.

One of the first things someone working with a fearful dog needs to understand is that it’s ok to comfort a dog that is afraid. It’s ok to give them a piece of cheese or take them away from what is scaring them. These responses will not be saying to the dog, “Yes Rover you are absolutely right to be afraid, keep it up.” It is reasonable to respond to fear in a dog in much the same way you would with a frightened toddler.

Even when someone is willing to accept the above information as truth they often feel obliged to add, “But don’t coddle them.” In my head I have a picture of what ‘coddling’ is and I assume that other people have a picture in their heads as well. Whether or not the pictures are the same is another matter. When I ask people to define to me what coddling a dog means what I hear often translates into someone behaving in a way which protects their dog from what is scaring them. Should you pick up your small dog when a boisterous, young dog comes bounding over? Maybe you should if your dog might be injured or if your dog has been attacked or frightened by a dog.

The argument against protecting your dog from what scares them is that the dog will not learn how to deal appropriately with it. And I counter by saying that by definition the use of desensitization and counter conditioning or behavioral adjustment training or ‘look at that’ (to name a few of the techniques we can use to give dogs better skills for dealing with triggers) is not to ‘never’ expose them to triggers, but to do so in a way in which the emotional response is low enough that the dog can think and you can change how they feel and teach them how you prefer they behave.

If a handler believes that we can reinforce fear in a dog by being compassionate and understanding of their fears, they may be more inclined to go with the alternative which is the ‘suck it up and deal’ route. There are some dogs, dogs whose fears are low level enough that they are not totally freaked out by the presence of a trigger, that are ok with this kind of treatment and because of this it is extrapolated that it is appropriate for all dogs.

Folks involved in rescue will answer that they have too many dogs to fix to be pussy footing around, but I say that if a dog is capable of responding positively to being forced to ‘suck it up and deal’ with a trigger that in all likelihood they will respond positively to being desensitized and counter conditioned to them. A handler’s inability to properly use force-free techniques does not mean that a dog is incapable of having positive responses to those methods. I once called an electrician to repair a light fixture in the ceiling. He spent about 30 seconds assessing the problem and said to me, “Lady, you have to screw the bulb all the way in.” The problem was not with the fixture, it was with my bulb installation skills.

It is possible to behave in ways which we believe should be comforting to a dog but which in actuality are not. We can telegraph our own concern, fear or discomfort to a dog with one inhalation, however this does not change the fact that if we were truly offering a dog comfort or a high value reward, that we can have a positive effect on their level of fear. Ignoring a dog that is afraid is also setting up for possible problems in the future. If a dog is left flapping in the breeze they have to come up with their own solution to finding a way to stabilize themselves. Sometimes they make good choices, often they don’t.

As for the usefulness of punishing a dog for behaving in a fearful way (which can look like aggression) I’m sorry to say that even if you can convince me that you have taught the dog to think that something is ok, and have not just inhibited their response to it, I will not be standing up in the bleachers and cheering. If you have a kid who proudly shows off a wad of cash and explains how they got it by going into a liquor store with a gun and demanding it, I suspect your reaction will be very different to the same amount of cash being waved about if it was gained by shoveling the neighbors’ driveways. How we go about getting behaviors matters.

If a reluctance to acknowledge or protect a dog from its triggers is caused by a concern about ‘coddling’ them, I think coddling just might be a better response. Nom nom.



30 comments so far

  1. KathyF on

    Oh good, I’m not the only one who hates the phrase “nom nom”.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ha! So glad to hear that Kathy. I didn’t want to offend anybody, but what is it with that phrase that is so weird?

      • KathyF on

        I just don’t like the sound. Maybe because it sounds like someone talking with food in their mouth?

  2. Deborah Flick on

    Now I know what ‘nom nom’ means. It’s weird. Nice post, by the way. Now I gotta get back to coddling Sadie.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Be sure to tell Sadie I said to. If we ever meet I want to start building up some brownie points.

  3. Kim on

    Thank you, Debbie. I wish that someone had told me all of this 10 years ago when Angel first started showing fear of loud noises, but I am so glad that along my journey I have met people like you who have helped me help her and so many other dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Life often does seem to have a lot of those, ‘if only I knew then what I know now’ moments. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Ashley Taylor on

    Ha! I am so a person who says things you don’t like. I have totally said “om nom nom” on Twitter (thank you for not unfollowing me!) and, awhile back, used the word “coddle” in a comment on one of your blog posts. In the case of “coddle” I now know much, much better, and our desensitization and counterconditioning is going amazing. Great post!

    • fearfuldogs on

      As I said, it’s nothing personal. Kind of like fingernails on a chalk board for some reason ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. didiwright on

    One of the reasons I read your blog is because I learn a lot from your posts. This one is no exception, it’s very well written and informative. I don’t have a fearful dog, but the more I read the more prepared I feel should he develop any fears or in case we adopt a rescued dog with such issues in the future.
    It’s weird, I’m also not too keen on “nom nom”, and yes, it is because I don’t like the sound of it ๐Ÿ™‚

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for saying that Didi. In between books it’s hard for me to keep my mouth shut about how this stuff ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Funny about that nom nom word.

      • didiwright on

        Oh, no, I hope you’re not serious about trying to keep your mouth shut! I think the world needs more people who have the guts to openly say what they think. I’m looking forward to more controversy ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. honeysjourney on

    Coddling is a word used by us unprofessional dog trainers and is a must do when working with fearful dogs, you can’t reinforce fear by coddling. If your 2 year old is afraid to sleep in the dark, because of the monsters hiding under the bed and you help them overcome their fear by leaving a night light on is that called desensitizing or counter conditioning, maybe by professionals, but I call it coddling.

    The transitive verb of coddling is: to treat gently or with great care. I like to be coddled, and I do more around the house when I am (as in a surprise nice glass of Chardonnay after I finish a chore I really hate)

    So Honey, plan on being coddled a whole lot more.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have always preferred the ‘to treat gently’ definition of coddling.

  7. Lizzie on

    I don’t know, but I think there may be some confusion about the word coddle or coddling.I’ve always known the word to mean a cooking style. The Cambridge English dictionary defines it as to cook (an egg) at a temperature just below boiling!

    Then there is the word mollycoddle, which defines in the dictionary as follows: to give someone too much care or protection.
    (eg, You’re not helping the children by mollycoddling them – they have to grow up sometime.)

    Whatever the meaning, I’m not sure what ‘giving too much care’ can mean when used in relation to a dog, fearful or not?

    I’m with you Debbie, ‘to treat gently’ is the way to go.

  8. Kristina on

    Thank you for this.
    My ex and I co-owned a fearful dog (aussie mix, who is almost 4) and he has improved SO much in the last two years since we threw out some of the old myths. Coddling and such.
    I’ve read a lot of your blog today so this may not be relavent to this post but I do want to say that the ThunderShirt did WONDERS for him. We stopped having to use a doggy downer finally! (I am a vet technician, and we only used the meds under very extreme conditions. Such as when he ripped a 7″ gash in his belly from fear-chewing on himself while in his kennel and a storm broke out when we were not at home.)

    My ex now has the dog full time but I still see him pretty often, and help with projects such as this.

    I do protect my dog from things that scare him. It’s my JOB! So I completely agree with you here. We work through his fears patiently and at the pace that he is ready to. I would never just ‘force him to deal with it’.

  9. melfr99 on

    I read this post yesterday and wanted to respond, but wasn’t sure how to respond in a way that made sense. I will give it a try and see if you can make sense of it.

    First, I also hate the word “coddling”. I think it implies spoiling or somehow “giving in” to a behavior. I don’t think it belongs in training terminology. I also dislike Nom Nom and baby talk when speaking for one’s pet. It drives me crazy (not to mention that half the time I can’t understand what they are trying to say – it’s like a foreign language to me).

    Regarding comforting a dog when they are fearful of an object, I agree, I don’t think it’s detrimental to calm a dog when they are fearful. However, I think there is a lot of misinformation or opposing information out there about what is reinforcing a behavior vs. what is comforting or “coddling”. Have you ever noticed that most of the advice around how to handle dogs and their fear of thunderstorms tells us to ignore the behavior so as not to reinforce the fear? Is that the wrong method? Should we be comforting?

    And, what about when a dog reacts fearfully to another person or dog while out on a walk? What is comforting and what is reinforcing? I personally try to redirect, but again, there is a lot of confusing info out there about which is the best method.

    I think ignoring a behavior in a fearful dog depends on the behavior and the situation. When I first adopted Daisy, I ignored her jumpiness so as not to make a big deal out of it. If I had tried to comfort (or “coddle”) her at the beginning it would have only made her more uncomfortable (since she was already afraid of people). Was that wrong? I personally don’t think so. When she grew to trust me, I did comfort her in situations where she was nervous or scared – like introducing a new environment. Was that wrong? Was that coddling or reinforcing the wrong behavior? You tell me.

    I think this is another great post Debbie, but I think it actually generates more questions for me than it helps to answer. Maybe more clarification on what you view as comforting a dog who is fearful vs. what is reinforcing a behavior in a fearful dog vs. what is “suck it up and deal” behavior would be helpful. are to write another post? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • KellyK on

      I would also like to see more on where those lines are, though I think a lot of it depends on the situation and the dog.

      • bswnyca on

        I am a big fan of PK Shader who has been working with dogs for over 45 years. She has taught me that to teach a dog not to do something they first have to understand and know the unwanted behavior by labeling it! What a concept, eh? For example when Sallie was barking at the door I said that’s barking and gave her treats. Now that she knows what barking is when she was quiet, I quickly labeled it and gave her a treat. same with in and out of the kitchen. I found this site today to respond to a friend who posted an article about a trainer whose methods I do not approve of. Dogs are pretty smart and their desire is to please us. When they know what’s expected of them, we are all happy. It’s a process but much faster than I thought. Boy do I wish I had been ‘introduced’ to PK years ago.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Great to find someone who helps us work with our dogs without resorting to force.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The main point Mel is that you DO NOT reinforce fear by doing anything that ‘comforts’ or ‘rewards’ the dog. That’s it really. Period. Once that concept is understood we move on to sort out what really is comforting or rewarding to the dog, and in some cases it is not being handled. Studies of storm phobic dogs have indicated that being ‘comforted’ by their owners does not lower their stress level. This does not mean that ‘comforting’ doesn’t work, it means that being handled by their owners is NOT comforting to them. We have to define what we do with our dog by how the dog, not we, define it. It’s like telling a kid that you are giving them ‘good’ food when you put a plate of spinach and brussel sprouts in front of them. You may have a difference of opinion from the kid. If you’ve ever been really upset about something someone giving you a big hug can be more annoying than reassuring. In that case, please don’t hug it’s not comforting.

      The term reinforcing is not the same as comforting. Reinforcers by definition increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Behaviors, not emotions, increase when they are rewarded. What is ‘rewarding’ again depends on the dog. Being comforted is often rewarding to a dog, it helps the dog regain their level of emotional homeostasis. Being distracted by a frisbee can be rewarding because the frisbee causes a positive emotional response, which is also rewarding to the dog. If a dog is easily startled and fearful having someone interact with them puts social pressure on them, so trying to ‘calm down’ or ‘comfort’ a ‘jumpy’ dog by giving them attention can add to their stress level.

      So sometimes comforting, coddling, whatever doesn’t work. But it doesn’t work because it is not perceived by the dog as rewarding, not because it’s telling the dog they are right to be afraid or is reinforcing fearful behavioral responses. Also our behavior can cue a dog to be afraid, even if we think we are ‘comforting’ them.

      There are alternatives to making a dog ‘suck it up and deal’ that are without the potential negative side effects, that I don’t see the reason to force a dog into dealing with something they don’t have the skills for dealing with. Just because I may have tried something that didn’t work, and believe it should have and therefore it’s time for sucking it up, it doesn’t mean I did whatever I did correctly, or gave it enough time. Trainers often hear, “I’ve tried everything,” from people struggling with a dog. In fact they have not tried ‘everything’ (who ever really has?) or they have incorrectly implemented the things they’ve tried. I routinely get upset with my computer and ultimately I find it comes down to the problem being with me, not the computer.

  10. melfr99 on

    Thanks for a great response Debbie. I think it’s helpful that you defined it is what is “comforting” and “rewarding” from the dog’s perspective, not ours.

    The reason I asked about this is because I have seen many people define what they are doing as “comforting their dog” when in fact they are probably rewarding and reinforcing a behavior that is undesirable. Thus the confusion I mentioned in my comments above.
    It’s all in the perspective.

    BTW – I agree. I don’t believe that the “suck it up” approach is a good one. There are so many other ways to help a dog, including comforting, than to force them to face whatever they are fearful of in their environment. I see this all of the time. People forcing two dogs together when one is so very clearly afraid of the other dog. It never ends well.

    • fearfuldogs on

      We know that if we are seeing more of a behavior it is likely being rewarded in some way, whether by us or because the dog finds it rewarding in some way all on their own. But when it comes to dogs behaving inappropriately because they are emotionally ‘over the top’ so to speak, if we can address the emotion we will often see a change in the behavior.

  11. Ligea Ruff on

    I found this blog/post via a search on the internet. I have a dog that has always seemed “predisposed” to what my hubby and I call a “hyper-awareness” of his surroundings. Plastic bag caught in a bush, loud noise (hammering, loud beeping, etc.), cars driving by the house, a sign in the neighbor’s yard that wasn’t there before, strong winds (we get a lot in the Rocky Mountain Foothills 20-60 mph on a regular basis) all cause him to startle and run away from the object/situation. In the case of winds, he will snuggle tight at my feet where he often will sleep until I move. He often jumps up from sleep from (I know this seems silly) farting, if me or hubby shift in our chairs, or if a car drives by. I have stood by clicker/positive reinforcement training since he was 5 weeks old (the breeder brought the pup’s families in starting at 4 weeks to handle them) and he learned to sit at 5 weeks with a clicker.

    All that said, I believe this is fearful behavior and I am at a loss on how to help him overcome it. I am deeply suspicious of any trainer who feels an e-collar or pinch collar is the way to “intelligently” communicate with your dog. (yes, they do say that on their website) I have read lots of books – click to calm and others. I can’t really use a clicker to calm my dog as he gets very excited at the opportunity to “work” with the clicker. He’s a 2 year old Norwegian Elkhound. This is my second Elkhound and my husband’s third and the others were very calm dogs. This one’s mother was also very hyper and very bark-y. He has both of these traits in spades. He even gets excited about a gnat on the ceiling, if you can believe that.

    I appreciate the concepts in this post very much, but am wondering if anyone knows of a good trainer that might help us make sure we are not reinforcing the fearful behaviors. There is too much information to put in this message, but please, I would appreciate any ideas you may have.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are right to avoid anything that shocks, scares or startles your dog. Having a genetic predisposition to being fearful, easily startled or hypervigilant (as is certainly possible) is not something one can ‘overcome’. It’s like getting over being short. You can start by understanding that while you can make a dog more fearful by doing something scary (like using a shock collar) or yelling at a dog, or you can cue a dog to prepare to become afraid by putting tension on a leash, you CANNOT reinforce fear by doing anything that makes your dog feel less stressed or anxious, regardless of what that is.

      What we can do is give a dog the skills for dealing with stressful situations and modify their environment so they are not constantly feeling stressed by the need to be hypervigilant. If we cannot manage their environment and lower the stress they are experiencing, we can consult with a vet regarding medications that can help a dog feel less anxious. Constant stress and anxiety are damaging to an animal’s overall health. If you have not had a look at the website you should check it out. You need to get your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization.

      What cities are you close to?

  12. Max on

    Couldn’t agree more. Gil my border collie became increasingly afraid of thunderstorms as he as aged. Last year it got to a point at 7 years old where he began shaking and drooling.

    At which point I ordered a thundershirt for him. Which helped tremendously. I had tried the ignore the problem as he cowered under my desk or where ever I was. After reading numerous times coddling would exaggerate the problem and confirm he needed to be very afraid. Did not help his fear just increased each time a storm occurred.

    But have found for him the best way is to, put his thundershirt on when he gives the signs a storm is coming. Acknowledge the lightening or thunder, “Yes I know, its okay ..its okay” slow strokes and deliberately slow my breathing and heart rate with breathing exercises. Which does calm him and then when he is calm, I sing “if you are happy and you know it wag your tail and if you are happy and you know it *insert his bark” It is one of his fun games and distracts him.

    When he joins in, I know he is feeling better.

    At which point he will go outside with me and play ball in thunder and lightening. So basically I acknowledge his concern, soothe and then distract.

    He is doing much better than a year if you see a woman whipping a tennis ball in a thunderstorm, singing if you are happy and you know it (out of tune),wearing a “coddler” t-shirt that would be me.

    Hopefully at some point he will recognize lightening thunder as cue for playtime.

    All I know for sure is he is coping much better than ignoring his anxiety.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You might also do some research into the studies done on melatonin for sound phobias. I use it in conjunction with the Tshirt for storm phobic dogs and have good success. They sleep ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Max on

    Awesome info thank you – I scoured the net and you are correct some great results with melatonin.

  14. Laly on

    wow I am so glad I read this…I’m considering adopting a little dog and in the adoption description it states that they are looking for adoptive parents who has to give this dog little attention and keep him in a crate because he has been over coddled? I just though WTH I always coddle my pets and they are happy and treated with lots of love. I just though for a second that I was going to harm this doggie by giving him too much love?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds like a dog who was given few skills for being comfortable and appropriate in their world. Love is good, but skills are better. A dog can survive quite well in the world of humans without being adored (though it’s a pity for them) if they know what to do. But a dog who ‘misbehaves’ ends up like this dog, crated, rehomed, or possibly dead.

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