Old News

dog under desk targeting a ball on the end of a stickAfter years of flipping through the magazines strategically placed at the check-out in grocery stores, it was impossible not to notice that generations of young women are being schooled on how to apply mascara, bake a no-fail chocolate cake, and on what turns men off, assuming any of this matters to them. The faces on the covers have changed, but the information hasn’t since any of these topics were new to me, decades ago. I understand that while not news to me, it is news to some.

With that in mind I am going to revisit the “reinforcing fear” topic. I should explain that the idea that we reinforce fear in dogs by doing anything even remotely “nice” or pleasant to them, is a hot button subject for me. This misinformation was shared with me by a trainer, and accounts for months of mishandling my fearful dog Sunny. It was mentioned in a class I attended years before I had met Sunny, but the information stuck and shaped my interactions with him. I will never know how much this has impacted his current behavior, and I realize that hindsight is 20/20 but it continues to upset me. How much different might he be today if I had not spent months worrying about reinforcing or enabling his fear, and instead had immediately addressed his stress levels, however I needed to, to lower them? Maybe there wouldn’t be much of a difference, but I suspect there would be, hence the relevance this topic has for me.

On my Facebook page, a masseuse made brief comment that discouraged people from praising a scared dog. They didn’t explain why not to do it, but it is apparent to me why they’d say it-the reinforcing fear myth. I tried to be equally as brief in my reply and hopefully not rude but imagine if I had gone on to a page about canine massage and commented that one should not “massage old dogs.” And let’s say that there were people who thought that massage was dangerous for old dogs, that it could stop their hearts. Ridiculous you might think, but no more ridiculous than thinking you will reinforce fear in a dog by comforting them, or handing them a bit of cheese.

And why would I think that I was not qualified to comment on massage? I have after all lived with a body for decades, have had massages, my husband routinely tries to get me to massage his feet, and once I shared a house with two women in massage school. No I had not ever seen a dog’s heart stop when they were massaged, but neither has anyone seen a dog’s fear being reinforced when they are praised or comforted. A dog’s fear might have remained the same or increased when someone thought they were praising (and that praising was perceived by the dog as a reinforcer), or comforting, but that’s not evidence of anything other than that a handler didn’t understand thresholds and counter conditioning.

Not all behavior is created equal. There is behavior that is used to get something done. A dog scratches the door to get a person to open it. There is behavior that is a product of the presentation of something that creates a strong emotional response in a dog (or is part of the set of behaviors that dogs come packaged with, chasing stuff for example). This latter behavior might also produce results, a dog who is scared snarls and makes another dog move away, and dogs can get better at snarling and making dogs move away, but there is a difference between operant, the former, and respondent, the latter, behaviors. Wrap your head around this, it’s important.

If the consequence of an operant behavior is something the dog finds pleasant or beneficial, we are likely to see that behavior occur more often. If the consequence of a behavior caused by a dog being afraid of something, is something the dog finds pleasant or enjoyable, the emotional response is likely to change, from bad to good, and subsequently the behavior that it produced will change. If a kid hates going to school, we’ll probably find it difficult to get them to perform “going to school” behaviors, but if they LOVE going to school, getting them up in the morning, dressed and out the door is likely to be a different scene than for the poor kid who doesn’t enjoy it.

It isn’t easy to change emotional responses, but it is easy for someone to think they’re following the protocol to do it, and they are not. This is not evidence that desensitization and counter conditioning don’t work, just that they’re not being implemented properly.

I have not yet looked at these DVDs produced by Animal Behavior Associates, but I will be. I also will be careful about giving advice on topics I do not fully grasp, and even more careful about the advice I give when I am being paid for it.

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22 comments so far

  1. Mel on

    As always, food for thought. I am so glad I don’t believe that reinforcing fear idea anymore.

  2. Anthony on

    There’s also the unmentioned topic here of soothing fear perpetuating fear based behaviors. I haven’t seen much in the way of information on this, but I have definitely affected my girl Prudence thru soothing. She comes to me when scared and looks for protection. This highly elevates her energy. I’m unsure as to how i can reverse this, but I think I created an extra obstacle in treating her fear. Thoughts?

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m not really sure what you are saying. What elevates her energy? If something about how you respond is impacting her behavior in a way you don’t want, change how you respond. Have you taught her any behaviors which you can cue that will distract her or provide her with the opportunity to change how she feels? Training using positive reinforcement has this perk built into it.

      • Anthony on

        I distract with having her sit. It may take the smell of a treat to get her to change focus. once i can get her attention i make her look at me and me only. Once she settles she gets a treat. This is if the fear is only a certain level. I’ve really only found success with distraction recently so it’s a work in progress. What I mean by the energy elevating is if she has the ability to seek solace from me she’s 10 times harder to get to change her focus from the fear. I should just “make it better”. I’m keeping with the distraction training and picking up on cues that I’m giving her that elevate her too(like saying “leave it” before she even sees what i think she will react to). Thanks for your input

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Let me suggest that requiring a dog to NOT look at the thing that is scaring them, may not be productive. Imagine you were afraid of snakes and I denied you any kind of positive feedback (cheese) if you insisted on keeping track of where it was in the room. Even if I was able to force you to not look at the snake does this mean that you are not aware of its presence and have ceased to be afraid of it? Doubtful.

        We don’t “make it better” for dogs. We provide them with social buffering to lower stress, should, and hopefully, we provide that for them, and we use the opportunity to counter condition. If every time the dog looked at the scary thing, or something scary happened, and it wasn’t bowel emptying bad, over time, if we are consistent enough with dispensing something fabulous, we change what the scary thing predicts.

        You are on track with providing an a fun behavior for your dog to perform, but don’t confuse operant and classical conditioning. When we are dealing with fear based behaviors it’s Pavlov who we want to keep in mind.

  3. torybirch on

    As a dog training beginner with a reactive dog, I’m not sure I’ve come across the “reinforce fear” theory until now. I’m glad I found out about it here first so, if I do encounter it I know not to just immediately buy into it. We’re using positive reinforcement (Karen Pryor style) and BAT training right now. Thanks for another interesting post!

  4. Jen on

    A good topic, and you’re right, it does bear repeating!

  5. Lynn on

    I agree it bears repeating. I was at a lesson with a very nice, rewards-based trainer recently and she told me to ignore my reactive Jazzie when she was growling at another dog because it reinforces the behavior, just as paying attention to a dog during a thunderstorm reinforces the fear. It was a group class, so I kept quiet, but I sent her an email later, to put my 10 cents in. It seems like common sense that soothing a worried dog during a storm isn’t the same as reinforcing bad behavior. I’m not even convinced that calmly telling Jazz that everything was OK and there was no need to growl is reinforcing bad behavior. She stopped growling …

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Good thinking on your part Lynn! And we can always test our hypothesis. If what we do decreases a behavior we’d like to see decrease, then we are not reinforcing it are we?

  6. kirbysdawgblog on

    It is so funny I did a video on what you are talking about! http://youtu.be/VyKSEjjN7aw As for the makeup and all related, I like those videos on youtube but I like stuff about dogs more 🙂 Guess I’m just the oddball of my generation

  7. Renee on

    This question may be a little off topic so I apologize in advance. I have a dog who is afraid of thunderstorms. I am planning on working with her using desensitization and counter conditioning methods. In the meantime I have been sitting with her and petting her in a calm manner whenever a storm strikes. Not sure if that counts as a type of counter conditioning, or just plain old comforting? Seeing that her fear of storms haven’t decreased over the years, my best guess is comforting. Which, would go to show how important desensitization and counter conditioning are along with comforting. I have been noticing lately that there are times when a storm comes that instead of her coming to me or my husband she will jump up on the couch and hide her face in the corner of the couch and lay there until it passes. My question for you is that, would you agree that she is self soothing at those times when she hides her head in the corner of the couch? That was my first thought.

    • Debbie on

      I couldn’t say if she was being soothed or not from her choice of behavior. She may just be hunkering down and trying to get through it.

      Meds for storm phobias can be effective as can melatonin and a body wrap. All can make the counter conditioning process more effective.

  8. jet on

    yup I have heard that one a lot and I worried I was doing the wrong thing with Bender sometimes in relation to his fears… turns out I was just doing what came naturally, trying to distract him, trying to get his attention, just getting *home* as quickly as possible, not going for walks when there are fireworks on that night…. for ignoring the emotional fear response of the dog and pushing them out of their comfort zone does not work for dogs as it seems to for humans… (scared of heights? jump out of this plane!!!)

  9. Sam Tatters on

    When people tell me they “ignore” their dog when he’s worried, I feel sorry for the dog.

    Both of my dogs know they can come to me when they’re scare and I’ll look after them in the best way I can at the time. I don’t care what anyone else thinks – or says – when I do this. I know it works for us, and helps my dogs to trust in me more.

  10. Renee on

    Okay, thank you Debbie. I am going to try desensitizing and counter conditioning her with a canine cd developed for dogs with storm phobias. I work full time and am not always home when a storm hits so I figured that would be the best route in her case. Thanks again!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I also live in an area where storms can come up suddenly. Melatonin is ok to use, even if a storm doesn’t come while you are away. Another good part of the protocol is to create a safe place where your dog can go when storms do happen. Some people set up a crate covered with a blanket in their basement or room in the house the dog usually retreats to. Lots of fabulous things happen in that space when there are no storms, bones, stuffed kongs, etc. Dogs can learn to go there when a storm occurs and derive some relief. Good luck. Storm and sound phobias are truly miserable for all involved.

      • Renee on

        Once again, thank you Debbie. I really appreciate your concern in helping me and my Abby. :).

      • Debbie on

        You are most welcome!

        Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  11. Jessica on

    I’ve started asking people who mention this: “Could you have a panic attack on purpose, right now, if I offered you $5,000?”

    I do think there are things that are counterproductive, because they feed into the dog’s feelings of fear (worrying yourself into a tizzy, dramatic “Poor baby”-ing), but fear is just not a behavior that you can reward *into* existence.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Good example Jessica. If a person’s behavior makes a dog more uncomfortable and concerned we can probably agree that it’s best they knock it off.


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