Beware the message

hands of drowning person reaching above water

Don't help them, you'll only reinforce their fear of water!

When I read many of the blogs, forums or other posts regarding dog training I get the impression that the writer is well intentioned but the information they are sharing is either wrong or misleading.

Words are loaded. They come with meanings we may agree with, or don’t. I have a list of words I hate. Or at least strongly dislike. I dislike them, and try to avoid using them because unless they are clearly defined they are open to interpretation by the reader. Words like; pack leader, coddle and alpha. We should be specific as to what we mean by the use of words. Someone’s- calm, assertive leader, may be my- bully who doesn’t know how to read dogs. Telling someone not to ‘coddle’ their dog may be interpreted as- don’t protect your dog from things that scare them- advice that can be very, very dangerous. Alpha, well, alpha just needs to go away.

I have had to bite my tongue on a forum in which someone with a fearful dog is being told to ‘wait for non-fearful behavior and then reward it’. We know that dogs repeat behavior they are rewarded for but seriously, this is how dog trainers are working with fear-based behaviors? Imagine telling a parent to drop their kid who is afraid of the water into the deep end where they’ll be over their head and only come to their aid when they start offering non-drowning behaviors. If they do pull the kid out right away they will only be reinforcing their fear of water. Huh?

Why are dogs afraid to begin with? There may be underlying medical conditions that need to be addressed. They may not have been exposed to the things that scare them either when they needed to be exposed in order to develop the ability to deal with them appropriately, or how they needed to be exposed to feel safe around them. Bottomline is the dog doesn’t have the skills to deal with the situation. Waiting for them to develop those skills while they are terrified makes no sense.

Dogs are not choosing to be afraid and they are also not choosing their response to their terror. All of the ‘nothing in life is free’, or ‘earn to learn’ training techniques fall on deaf ears when one is dealing with the more immediate concern of saving one’s life.


32 comments so far

  1. Sue on

    ‘wait for non-fearful behavior and then reward it’.
    In my opinion, that is a very naive and blinkered way of looking at things.
    What about a puppy farm/mill ex breeding dog? My little dog would have waited a long time to be rewarded if i had followed that advice!
    A reassuring cuddle or stroke when the fear gets out of hand has made a massive difference to Poppy. If we are out walking and something really frightens her, i get down to her level and talk to her, and comfort her. It only takes seconds, and she is then able to carry on with tail held high. After a year with me, the fear isn’t there so much now, but how much easier it is for her to know that i am there to help when she faces a problem.
    I would like to think someone’s there to hold my hand and support me when the going gets tough.

    • melfr99 on

      Sue – I could not have said it better. So agree! That’s how Daisy learned that fear can be overcome – with love, a gentle touch, a soft voice and encouragement. If I had waited she never would have become the dog she is now.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Worse is that it’s supposedly a ‘professional’ way of looking at things!

  3. Hilary on

    Absolutely love this! You articulate your thoughts so well–and it makes so much sense! I always enjoy it when you use the word “coddle” too…! I hope people really learn from your insights.

    • Debbie on

      Thanks Hilary. I like to say coddle 5 times fast. It’s a funny word. Too bad it gets a bad rap.

      Sent from my iPod

  4. That graphic is perfect. Great analogy.

    • Debbie on

      Thanks Roxanne!

      Sent from my iPod

  5. Donna and the Dogs on

    Forums are just terrible. Anyone can post advice, and for that matter, anyone can call themselves a professional. It is really sad. I used to belong to several, and gave them all up because of things that went on that were just heartbreaking.

    I agree with Roxanne – great analogy.

    • Debbie on

      I end up sticking with forums and groups with good moderators who nip the rubbish early. The forum I was reading is for ‘professional’ trainers. Had to stop reading.

      Sent from my iPod

  6. J.M. Stewart on

    I think the problem is dog training is still often taught as a trade rather than an academic science based discipline. Would you use a psychologist or a vet that didn’t understand principles that techniques were based on, and only learned through watching someone else do it?

    Simple techniques can be used in minor and some moderately fearful dogs, but those aren’t effective in severe cases. Honestly most “experts” don’t know how to help severely fearful (or anxious, or aggressive) dogs, and the vast amount of misinformation on the Web further confuses the public. I’m glad there are sites like yours to help educate.

    • Debbie on

      Thanks for your comment. Many are still in denial regarding the richness & complexity of a dog’s emotional life I think.

      Sent from my iPod

  7. Penny Ronning on

    I’m pretty sure that I am not supposed to be laughing through the second paragraph, but dang…you’re good! Keep putting it out there, Debbie!!

    As always, excellent message. Thank you!

  8. KellyK on

    Wow, that’s totally backwards. The very fact of being scared by something makes it scarier. So the more you make them experience that fear, the more they associate the thing they’re scared of with bad things.

    I think that advice could be fine in a situation where they have an escape route and no pressure (e.g., wait for them to approach a new person and reward that, but let them hide if they want nothing to do with the new person). But when they’re trapped in the scary situation, how the heck are they supposed to ever offer non-fearful behavior? Worse, what looks like non-fearful behavior might actually be a point where they’re still terrified, but have shut down or given up.

    I think people tend to assume that all behavior is reward-seeking and there’s not actual emotion behind it, so they’re afraid of “rewarding” fearful behavior. We’re worried about being manipulated by our dogs, when they’re not actually trying to manipulate us.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think you make a good point about people believing their dogs to be little manipulative brats, just out to get what works for them. Actually, who isn’t!? And yes, the inability to properly understand what a dog’s behavior is telling us about how they feel is a problem.

      One response to the situation on the forum had the owners working up to getting a choke collar on the dog so they could finally get the dog to do what they wanted, and stop mucking about with its disobedience.

      Heaven help us.

      • KellyK on

        A choke collar? Yep, heaven help us, for sure.

      • melfr99 on

        OMG. Seriously? A choke collar? Ugh!

  9. Rachel on

    Thinking about waiting for a non-fearful behavior. This is actually what I did when I first adopted my fearful dog. Terrible idea. We sat on the stoop, watching and listening to traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, people with strollers (everything that was scary). He was just scared the whole time. And if he acted less fearful for a second, he still wouldn’t take a treat, so there was no way to “reward” the less fearful behavior.

    So glad I got set straight about dogs and emotions. I think a lot of people see training, even clicker training, and work with the assumption that a dog is like a machine. Rewards lead to increase of rewarded behavior. Input leads to output. It totally neglects the fact that dogs have emotions and motivations and inner lives that do not revolve around treats and people-pleasing.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good points about how training dogs is often perceived by people.

    • melfr99 on

      I wish I had a “Like” button to click on Rachel.

  10. Sam & MargeDog on

    This weird idea that people have about reinforcing/rewarding fear (or non-fear in this case) is something that gets me SO UPSET. I just don’t understand how any one can claim to be a dog trainer but not know the simple difference between an emotional/involuntary/Pavlovian response and an instrumental/voluntary one.

    I once had one of those “I’m a professional dog trainer!!!” types tell me all about how I was ruining my dog by rewarding her and feeding her if she was not approaching a scary thing. Riiiiight. Because my dog is going to willingly choose to be more afraid. Though I didn’t know how to respond to her at the time, I now see that she displayed a gross lack of understanding of classical conditioning. Dog trainer? I’m not so sure.

    I think Rachel hit on an important point – that a lot of dog trainers view dogs as input/output devices, which really makes no sense because that’s not at all how we train people, or children, or even other types of animals. Dogs are so much more than “I do something, I get something.” The idea that it’s OK to ignore a dog’s emotional reaction and simply wait until we see the operant behavior that we like is not very wise and not very nice to the dog.

    • KellyK on

      My understanding of classical and operant conditioning is pretty basic, but I would think that it would be obvious if you’d reinforced an undesired behavior (say, whimpering) by comforting the dog. Either the dog would do it *more* in response to the same stimulus, or they’d randomly offer it in order to get the reward. If comforting a scared dog makes them seem less scared, and they don’t act scared for no apparent reason and then look at you expectantly (the way my dog sits without a cue if she knows I have a treat in my hand), I’d wager that you *haven’t* reinforced the behavior.

  11. Janet Finlay on

    It is really scary how little credence even professionals seem to give to dogs having real emotions. Not only can a frightened dog not offer “non-fearful” behaviour, its fear is only going to escalate if it is forced to stay in the scary situation while people wait for this to happen.

    Keep up the good work of speaking up for them Debbie!

  12. Kim on

    You know, I just find that stuff so sad. Fear is an emotion, not a behavior.

    Of course, for years I bought into the whole don’t reinforce fear thing while poor Angel trembled in the bathtub during thunderstorms, drooling and shaking, What a relief when I discovered that comforting her would not make things worse and I am amazed at how much better it is since I have started doing it.

    Treat the underlying emotion and the behavior will change itself.

  13. Erica on

    Great article! I’ve had two very fearful dogs from very different backgrounds and had to kind of muddle (another great word!) my way through with them. I had so many mixed ideas coming from trainers with different backgrounds that I finally just went with my gut. It just makes sense to comfort someone who is scared! The results have proven the methods, as far as I’m concerned. I have one prior abuse dog who was very dog aggressive out of anxiety, and one completely feral dog who grew up without human interaction. I’ve comforted both of them when they were scared and will continue to do so.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There’s a reason our gut is called our second brain!

  14. Jill Benassi on

    Hi. I’m fostering a shy & fearful dog. I’ve had him for a month and I’m comforting him like I would my child. I’ve made a little progress, he now sees me as his safe mom and often looks to me when scared. He never willingly leaves his safe spot. I have to slowly lead him outside to potty and to go for walks. Once outside his brain does calm down & he enjoys being outside and walking. He never raises his tail nor does he wag it, its usually hanging under him-not always tucked but down nevertheless. One of my questions is: will he be more willing to leave his safe spot soon? My next question: Is it alright if I invade his safe spot to pet him? I have been since he won’t approach me. My last question: can I pick him up even though he freezes when he realizes I’m about to do this?

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s hard to come up with cut & dried answers to questions about how much is ok to push a dog. You say a lot when you use the term, ‘invade’ to talk about his safe spot. Not much of a safe spot if it’s routinely invaded. But if he’s ok with you coming into his space that’s another story. What kind of response do you get when you pet him? Does he like it? If so, there’s your answer. We always have to be careful to consider whether a dog is merely tolerating something, and ‘letting’ us do something and whether or not they are really enjoying it, or ok with it.

      Are you teaching the dog any skills? A dog that can’t move out of their safe spot does not feel safe in their surroundings. There are likely many reasons why that might be the case. You have to address them.

  15. Jill Benassi on

    I used the word ‘invade’ to save time, that’s all. Reggie will lean into my handewhen I’m petting him and if he’s standing when I stop petting he’ll move closer so I pet him some more. He gets a treat when other women pet him. He’s afraid of men so I have my husband feed him and he visits & treats Reggie several times a day. I have 5 other dogs, 2 are sheltie 2 are golden retrievers and one is an old springer. He likes the springer but the goldens are big and noisy. I think they intimidate him and that’s why he doesn’t want to move. But when the door is closed and it’s just he & I he is very hesitant to come to me for a treat. Its almost like he expects something to rush through the door.
    I’m not teaching him anything yet. I’m hoping he’ll gain confidence to at least move around and not be afraid of the noises of our family.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You might check out targeting and name games on the website. Both help form the foundation for a recall, but come packaged in game form.

  16. Rory on

    I think the problem isn’t in waiting for a non-fearful response, it’s that people, some trainers included, do it in the wrong way. People are absolutely correct in rewarding a dog for a non-fearful response, but it has to be done at a level where the dog is already non-fearful. My dog is fearful of children. When the child is a block away, she’s nervous but not fearful. I can redirect her attention into obedience behaviors until she is no longer nervous. I reward her for relaxing out of her nervous state. If she can then look at the child in a calm way, she gets rewarded again. She still feels safe because she’s at a distance and is able to work through her fear.

    Slowly, we are shortening the distance between her and the thing she is afraid of. This helps her to slowly gain confidence to approach the things that she’s afraid of by learning that there’s nothing to worry about. I reward her for being non-fearful, but only at a distance where she can actually feel unafraid. The threshold for every dog is different, but working with that threshold to find a non-fearful response is usually effective.

    On the other hand, she’s also terrified of thunderstorms. She completely shuts down and is unable to function. Then, I comfort her. She’s allowed to do things she’s not normally allowed to do, like sleep in the bed with us, or snuggle on the couch. There’s no point in waiting for a non-fearful response, because she’s unable to cope with something that I can’t control. While we have tried to work with her fear by playing thunderstorm sounds at low volumes, recorded sounds don’t seem to elicit the same response. We simply manage the problem with an anxiety wrap, medications, and the occasional “sit in the bathroom with no windows and the fan running” event. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds like what you are talking about is the process of desensitizing and counter conditioning. The reward for relaxing out of a nervous state is intrinsic, it’s the reward of feeling better. Classical conditioning is always happening so when we reward a dog to operantly condition a visible behavioral response, an emotional response is always tagging along. It’s a beautiful thing.

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