Support Systems

There is so much progress that needs to be made in regard to how people “think” about animal behavior and training that it can seem overwhelming. But seven years ago I had to seek out and search for information regarding the most humane and effective ways to help dogs with fear based behavior challenges, whereas today it streams on my Facebook page and twitter account. Articles like this one, sharing the research done on how our intervention when a dog is scared can help alleviate their fear, is becoming mainstream. The science and research is being repackaged for mass consumption. It’s about time. But don’t think that everyone is buying it.

There are those who, due to an inconsistency in the terms we use to “talk” about behavior, will go on endless semantic journeys to dispute the claim that “comforting dogs does not reinforce fearfulness.” Comforting will be termed coddling and the methodology for applying either will be criticized. In one way it’s good. It means people are thinking, but when pieces of the puzzle don’t belong there, it’s difficult to come up with the right picture.

One such piece is the misunderstanding that people have regarding the use of the term “reinforcing” and how it is applied to behavior versus emotional responses. Behaviors that are reinforced can be expected to increase. Behaviors based on powerful emotional responses, if paired with what one might label a “reinforcer” (the same bit of cheese that increased the chances that a dog would sit when asked) cause a decrease in the emotional response, and subsequently we are likely to see a decrease in the behavior associated with the emotion. This is because we are counter conditioning the emotional response. Not all behavior is created equal.

Let’s use “hunger” as an example. Though not exactly an “emotion” if we feed an animal who is hungry, their hunger will decrease, and unless there is an eating disorder involved, the behavior associated with hunger, eating, will decrease. We do not reinforce hunger by feeding an animal. We do not reinforce fear when we comfort an animal. In both cases what constitutes food or comfort is dependent on the animal’s definition of them. One dog may find being stroked and held comforting, another might find it annoying. A hungry lion would not look at a bale of hay and see a meal, but a horse would. In either case if we know what a dog finds comforting or an animal thinks is tasty, and give it to them, we are likely to see a decrease in the behaviors associated with either being scared or hungry (after they’re done chewing of course).

I am going to propose that since the word “comfort” seems to be difficult for people to accept, even though it can be clearly defined-

1. To soothe in time of affliction or distress.
2. To ease physically; relieve.
1. A condition or feeling of pleasurable ease, well-being, and contentment.
2. Solace in time of grief or fear.
3. Help; assistance: gave comfort to the enemy.
4. One that brings or provides comfort.
5. The capacity to give physical ease and well-being: enjoying the comfort of my favorite chair.*

can be replaced by the term “to support.”

My aging border collie Finn was walking down a flight of stairs in our house when I could hear his nails scrambling on the wood. I got to him in time to prevent him from tumbling down. I helped him right himself and supported his hind end as he continued down. At the bottom I gave him a cheer and opened the door so he could go outside. I provided him with what he needed to get down the stairs unharmed. It is likely that he will avoid the stairs, and until I can put a runner down I would prefer that he did. But I did not want him to be injured to learn that lesson. Ultimately, when it is safe for him to do so, I want him to continue to go up and down the stairs on his own.

When we offer a stressed and scared animal our support we do so based on the needs of that animal. It does not make sense to state unequivocally that we should not attend to these needs because we may not be clear on what that support should look like. Or having provided that support inexpertly in the past it is proof that it doesn’t help. Our goal is to help a dog develop the skills and confidence they need so that continuing support becomes unnecessary, but until that happens it would be foolish to stop providing it.

Advising that supporting someone trying to learn to swim will keep them a life-long non-swimmer doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous. Someone may not need you to hold their hand as they walk into the waves, but someone else might lest, they be swept under and drown.



25 comments so far

  1. Natasha on

    I think what people worry about is, will the person become dependent on holding our hand? Will they refuse to try without our hand? Well, we figure it out with people or the swimming pools would be empty!

  2. rangerskat on

    Very well said. I love the idea of changing the language to support rather than comfort. Support is like putting a bandage on a wound or a cast on the broken limb so that it can heal. And that’s really what we’re trying to do; support the damage until it can heal.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks. I have to do something, the discussions about what is “ok” regarding comforting is getting old for me, even though I know many people still need to have it.

  3. diana on

    once again, love it.
    so glad you decided to address the issue of ‘semantics’.
    i have finally learned to just ask myself ‘what does this dog need right now?’.
    usually the dog lets me know the answer and i don’t really care what i or anyone else calls it, as long as i’m able to meet that need as best i can under the given circumstances.
    thanks again!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      That’s a good one too, “give the dog what they need.” Thanks!

  4. Renee on

    I might have missed it but it comes to mind that I have never read any advice on how to give comfort to your dog in a way that won’t reinforce his fear. And yes I do believe that you can reinforce fear, based only on the fact dogs are so intuitive. If I react with fear and nervousness to a situation at the same time my dog is reacting to the same situation with fear and nervousness he is going to sense this. His instinct will begin to tell him that his fear is validated if others around him are displaying the same reaction and emotion he is at that moment. Also, as an owner, it is very probable that you will just be reacting to your dog’s reaction, but he’s not going to know that. He’s just going to “pick up” on your reaction and connect it to the source of his discomfort or fear. I adopted a fearful dog 2 years ago. Whenever we would get company at the house I used to get very anxious because I was worrying that he may end up biting someone out of fear. Most often some visitors would not listen to my advice to just ignore him and he’ll come to you when he feels comfortable. It’s just too hard for people to not want to comfort a dog who is shaking out of fear. Been guilty of that myself in the past. It wasn’t until after I began to let go of my own fear and anxiousness that I noticed a big change in my fearful dog. He actually jumped up on the sofa with my mom the one evening she was visiting, and she rarely visits. I had also started to pet him calmly during the times he was shaking and scared to death of visitors trying to convey to him that all was okay. Bottom line, I applaud the arguments of giving comfort to our pets when they are experiencing fear, but I wish that more info on how to do it correctly was out there.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good question and good points. It is true that dogs are social animals and can pick up on our cues, so if we’re upset they might have cause to be concerned themselves, so being calm yourself is helpful. Dogs are masters at picking up on physical cues.

      There is something called “social buffering” which occurs, and that is that when an animal is stressed by something, having the opportunity to be with another animal, their stress levels go down. We do this all the time, we hold someone’s hand or grab onto them during scary bits in a movie, or we move closer to a friend when we’re riding the subway at night, we pick up and kiss the booboos of a child who has skinned their knee. We do all these things without once assuming that our actions are going to make anyone more upset than they already are. So that’s the, “you already know how to do this” answer I have for you.

      The other piece of this is the process of desensitization and counter conditioning that we use to change the associations a dog has with whatever scares them. This is a tried and true approach, a psychological roadmap for how to change emotional responses. It’s called classical counter conditioning and when done right is extremely successful. We change the associations a dog has with whatever they are afraid of. If having guests over means that steak or a yummy bone appears, and if the guests don’t do anything to upset the dog, soon the arrival of guests predicts good things, not, oh oh my human is acting differently and I don’t understand why, and then those people are going to try to pick me up or try to touch me.

      This is also something we already know about. We either get a sinking feeling when something happens we don’t like or a good feeling when something happens we do like. We can change many of these feelings. If grandma always reaches into her purse and hands you candy, you feel good seeing grandma, if instead grandma snatches you up, pinches your cheeks and she smells funny, you don’t feel so good. If we can convince grandma to change her greeting strategy, even if we can’t get her to change her perfume (though smell is a very potent trigger for emotions) we might stop having that sinking feeling when we see her.

      • Renee on

        So true! I was not connecting the dots of using desensitization and counter conditioning exercises as ways that are actually comforting, or supporting your dog. Would you agree the use of calming signals would be another way of comforting/supporting?
        Thank you so much btw for sharing your insights and knowledge with us! And our fearful dogs thank you too. 🙂

    • KellyK on

      This comment has a ton of good points. It’s definitely possible to scare a dog while attempting to offer comfort, especially if you yourself are nervous. I think calling it “reinforcing fear” muddies the waters because behaviors are reinforced, emotions aren’t.

      Also, I totally sympathize with your frustration about visitors who won’t leave the dog alone. If I had a quarter for everyone who kept trying to interact with my dog after I told them to stop, I could buy her an awful lot of bully sticks.

  5. Mel on

    It wasn’t until I met you that I understood it was okay to comfort a fearful dog. I still feel bad that I did not do this with my dog Indy. Thank goodness Daisy has benefited from my learning from you. She appreciates it too from what I hear. 🙂

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      You’re a quick study Mel and have become a great resource for good information for pet owners yourself. Thanks for being such a great supporter, it means a lot to me. It really does.

  6. Linda Trunell on

    I also was told that comforting a fearful dog would reward the fearful state of mind and therefore reinforce that behavior. My gut told me to comfort but I believed what I was taught. The more experience I had with dogs, the more I realized that comforting WAS the right thing to do. I believe that you cannot reinforce a fearful state of mind unless you create more fear. Sometimes you just have to go with your instincts.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Sometimes our instincts are actually right on with what has been supported by the research. Sometimes they’re not, so it is helpful to be open to looking at both. This idea about reinforcing fear has always seemed so easily proved as nonsense that it surprises me how sticky it is.

  7. This discussion is getting to the issue. If I am calm, and talk to my dog(s) in the relaxed voice they associate with “safe haven”, then the dog is likely to feel safe, stress will go down, and counter-conditioning will happen.
    If I communicate fear with “Oh you poor thing !” messages, I create the opposite of “safe haven”.
    A thunderstorm is the easiest place to see this. Even my “normal” dogs are uncomfortable during a sever storm. They all surround me, and want to be touched. I make a point of not holding them, so they don’t feel my startle response, but pet them and talk as I would if it wasn’t storming.

    In other words, you can’t tell your dog it’s safe if you don’t think it is safe. You can not lie to your dog. They know.

  8. Vince Egan on

    Well said in particular to BC’s when a fierce look can send them tailk draggin under the porch. For me it’s all in the eye; at least with Ellie. There is a 2 year research project funded by the ASPCA at St Huberts Animal Welfare center in Madison NJ. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of that….

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      When you think of how sensitive so many dogs are that they can be deterred by a glance it is almost painful to think that they are ignored to struggle without support, or are punished for needing it. The folks at the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue have been operating a “home life” program for mill breeder dogs. It is a great program and is helping many dogs. It’s great that St.Huberts has created a similar one. No doubt it will make a difference, and I hope begins to set a new standard for how dogs up for rehoming are handled, especially those who missed out on important early socialization.

      I hope you and Ellie are enjoying the snow.

  9. paulcottman on

    Three things I would add here:
    1) Counter Conditioning only works if the subject is below threshold so if the emotional response is too strong and the emotional value of the petting, food, toy, etc cannot match or exceed the value of the stimulus your subject is being counter conditioned to, this wont work. There are of course ways to do this.
    2) The emotional value of what we’re providing has to be strong enough for counter conditioning to work. This is hard because the reward hierarchy is constantly in flux and we have to be able to recognize an emotional response to that thing.
    3) The number of repetitions required for counterconditioning to occur can be quite high. Although a “happy” or more relaxed emotional response can be noticed after only a few sessions of counterconditioning ( sometimes within the first session), the response has to become more habitual. Initially we want the stimulus to predict things that bring a better emotional response. Eventually though, we will stop using those things and if done too early, the stimulus is no longer a reliable predictor of things that bring a happy response.

    Again, I love counter conditioning. Just things for people to consider

    Paul Cottman

  10. Louann Hansen on

    Have been looking for some help with one of my dogs. I just aquired a 6 month old papillon and she was not socialized a lot when she was younger and is soft in most situations. I have been walking her with a couple of my other dogs to reinforce the pack situation (she just arrived a couple days ago) and it was working great…she was starting to come out of her shell and enjoy the walk, sniff around with tail up enjoying herself and then disaster struck. I dropped her flexileash and it scared her…she took off running with it bouncing along behind her, scaring her even futher. Fortunately, she got it tangled around some bushes and I was able to rescue her. But now, I am not sure what to do to help her get past this. I tried to continue our walk, but it was obvious that she was terrified, so without much fanfare, we went home and she is now sleeping at my feet. I’m just not sure what my next step should be. Do I try to walk her again tomorrow? How do I help her understand that a walk is a fun thing now that she has had this scare?

    • fearfuldogs on

      All is not lost, but ditch the flexi. Get yourself a long line, or make one. I use light cord that you can get at a hardware store or dollar store and tie a clasp to it. You may need to counter condition her to the leash. In fact you want to make sure that you are incorporating counter conditioning into all the work you do with her, not just exposing her to stuff with the hope that she’ll learn to like it. I’ll include a link to work I did with Nibbles to get him used to the leash and to a blog post I wrote about my own dog’s bad experience with a flexi, which he has not forgotten. That’s the worrisome thing about scary a dog, if it’s scary enough, they never forget it. We can help them build new skills and work around it, but the fear doesn’t dissolve.

      Look through the posts about Nibbles for videos of desensitization and counter conditioning.

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