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Can You Reward a Dog’s Fear?

Can you reinforce a dog’s fear by petting and talking to him when he’s scared?

In this post:

  • Can you reinforce a dog’s fear by offering affection?
  • How to reinforce appropriate behaviors.
  • Why you should block inappropriate behaviors.

This topic was difficult for me to write about. I never did come up with a clear answer to the question, and I hope this post will be a place for honest discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Can you reward a dog’s fear by offering affection?

If only there were an easy answer!

I consulted with several professional dog trainers for this post, including Anthony Newman who runs Calm Energy Dog Training. He turned the question around and asked me what I thought. Here’s a summary of what I said:

It’s always worked to comfort my dog when his fear does not result in aggression. For example, when he’s scared of a tornado siren, he will curl up on his bed. This doesn’t bother anyone, so I will calmly pet and talk to him – or ignore him, which is probably not so nice! When aggression is involved, like barking at a stranger, I try not to give affection. I distract him and reward calm behavior.

After all my research for this post, this is what it comes down to for me. Offering comfort to a frightened dog is not going to do any harm. However, if the dog is showing inappropriate behaviors because of that fear – barking, pacing, growling – then we need to find a way to teach and reinforce a more appropriate behavior.

“We have to keep in mind that fear is an emotion, not a specific behavior,” said professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer, owner of The Inquisitive Canine. We reinforce or punish behaviors, not emotions.

Newman also said fear will not be reinforced because reinforcement comes from giving a reward.

“A truly fearful, anxious dog in a high-trigger situation, like thunderstorm-phobia, simply won’t care about the cuddling,” he said. The dog won’t be able to experience it as a reward.

Can you reward a dog's fear?

Why is this a tough topic?

One reason this topic is difficult for me is because we don’t all agree on how fearful dogs interpret our affection.

Professional dog trainer Ty Brown of Dog Behavior Online said he believes an owner’s affection can likely reinforce a dog’s fearful behavior because there is a disconnect in communication between the two species.

A great example of this is when a fear-aggressive small dog is barking and growling at strangers from her owner’s arms. Brown said he sees this a lot with little dogs.

“The dog is feeling fearful, and the owner is saying through voice and body language, ‘What a great job. That’s right. I support the state of mind you’re in,'” Brown said. “It’s a form of enabling and doesn’t teach the dog how to deal with that fear.”

I agree. Coddling a fear-aggressive dog will not help her build the skills she needs to deal with her fears in the future.

“It is important to remember in any dog training that dogs are not primates,” said professional trainer Rob Peladeau of Refined K9. Many of the things we do to help our children in fearful situations do not translate to the canine species.
Yet, some trainers say offering comfort could help a dog feel better in the moment, at least in some situations.

In her 2011 YouTube video “Calming A Fearful Animal,” professional dog trainer Suzanne Clothier said dog owners should offer affection to their scared dogs. But in order for that affection to be helpful, it needs to be quiet, firm and clear – not frantic.

“Everything in my body language, my movements, my tone of voice, how I touch the animal, has to say, ‘I know that’s scary for you. I got your back here,'” Clothier said.

Brown also wants his clients to comfort their dogs whenever the dogs are scared or stressed, and he said the best way to do that is through structure.

“I want them to do it in a way that leads to growth on the dog’s behalf,” he said. “For example, a dog that is stressed by outside thunder could be best soothed by being given a command to lie in a bed and stay put.”

This is typically what I do with Ace, and once he is in a calm state, he is able to receive affection as a reward for his calm behavior. While there are different ways to offer comfort to our dogs, the long-term goal should be to figure out how to get rid of the dog’s fear or help him learn to deal with that fear.

How to reinforce appropriate behaviors.

I always try to reinforce the behaviors I want from my dog, no matter what state of mind he’s in. This is especially important when aggression is involved, no matter how minor.

For example, my dog gets scared when strangers approach us in certain situations. He responds by barking, and this is a behavior I generally don’t want to reinforce.

I can reassure my dog with affection all I want – “It’s OK. It’s OK.” This may or may not affect my dog’s emotional state, but it’s not going to stop the unwanted barking. I know him well, and while he may bark less, he’s still going to bark.

Ace will stop barking, however, if I calmly put him in a down/stay position and ask him to focus on me – “watch.” His brain has to focus on something other than being scared – obeying my commands. I prefer not to use treats, but if treats bring out the behavior I’m looking for, then so be it! All I care about in that moment is reinforcing the right behavior.

Will affection reward a fearful dog?

Dr. Patricia McConnell,  a certified applied animal behaviorist, wrote a post on her blog about how you can’t reinforce fear through affection. One of her examples is when a fearful dog is barking at visitors. She wrote that if the “strangers” toss treats at the dog, the treats would not “reward” the dog’s fear. Instead, the treats would actually decrease the fear, which would eventually help the dog change his behavior (I love treats! Strangers bring treats! I love strangers!).

Do you see how both these approaches could help a dog? It all depends on the individual dog, the unique situation and the owner’s consistency.

Why you should block inappropriate behaviors.

Another factor – regardless of whether or not we give affection – is that a dog’s own actions can actually make the dog feel more fearful, according to McConnell in the comment section of the same post.

Can you reward a dog's fear?

For example, if the dog is lunging and barking at a stranger, the lunging and barking and getting worked up could make the dog feel more afraid. This is why it’s so important to prevent, block or stop these types of behaviors. Then, teach and reinforce “good” behaviors such as sitting quietly.

Emotions are contagious.

Can you reward a dog's fear?

If I want my dog Ace to be calm, the first thing I need to do is be calm myself.

If Ace is scared of an approaching stranger, and I choose to frantically pet my dog while repeating “It’s OK! It’s OK!” while we run away, what am I communicating to him? I’m telling him, “I’m scared, and you better be scared too!”

Isn’t this the perfect example of how our affection can actually make a dog more fearful? I think so, but I’ve love to hear what you think. At the very least, it’s not going to help the dog feel any less afraid.

How else can dog owners help their fearful dogs?

  • Don’t punish a fearful dog. Instead, distract the dog and then reward him for appropriate behaviors.
  • Provide the dog with lots of exercise. Dogs with less energy are generally going to be less reactive.
  • Build your dog’s obedience skills so he’ll have more self-control and a greater ability to pay attention to you.

In going through a list of all fears and anxieties, Brown said he can generally find obedience behaviors that:

  • Bring structure and are calming.
  • Achieve focus on the owner and therefore send focus away from the source of the stress.
  • Lend a sense of leadership which is needed when a dog is feeling nervous.

“For that reason, we always put a lot of emphasis on advanced obedience with all of our clients,” he said.

What do the rest of you think? Are there situations where affection can reward a dog’s fears?

Let me know in the comments!

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Related posts:

How to help a dog overcome a fear

Lindsay Stordahl is the founder of That Mutt. She writes about dog training and behavior, healthy raw food for pets and running with dogs.

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Mary Sue Brown

Tuesday 23rd of March 2021

Hi Lindsay- I think a factor to consider is why your dog harbors certain fears & anxieties. We’ve had two rescue goldens with extreme fears. The year old female was terrified of thunderstorms; she’d been on her own for weeks after she was abandoned & probably had been caught in the severe thunderstorms we got in Texas. The second, a male, had separation anxiety- had been adopted & given up by 3 owners by the time he was 2; he was left by himself all day, every day, when they went to work; they didn’t understand why he got into mischief when he was home alone. Both of these dogs were very sweet, but they experienced trauma and/or insecurity & lack of affection at a young age; we felt their fears were a reasonable result of their early experiences & we didn’t hesitate to offer comfort & reassurance when they exhibited their anxiety & fear. They both grew into loving, wonderful, well-adjusted pets, and we loved them dearly. Mary Sue

plantskidsdogs

Thursday 2nd of July 2020

I've rehabilitated terrified and feral dogs for 20 years. In the beginning I believed we shouldn't reward the behavior by paying any attention to it. I have personally come 180 degrees in this view. I think much has to do with HOW you treat the dog who is storm terrified, panting, pacing, and quite upset. I've found that first we need to have bonding time when they are NOT scared, where I massage them nightly for 30 minutes. Sometimes I hum or simply talk in a low soothing voice. Starting massages when they are not scared, teaches them I am their "safe" place/person. Uniformly, they will all then find ME when there's a storm coming. I believe medication has a strong place in their treatment, especially for storms we know may go on for hours or all night. If it's a tiny one, I usually forgo medication to use it as a positive time they can learn from. When they come to me during a storm, I will use the same low comforting voice and massage they have had when it's not storming. Massage releases oxytocin which is a "feel good" bonding hormone. Thus it works for storms too. Do they stop panting 100%? No, but being their safe person and massaging (and maybe humming, or talking soothingly to them during a storm) has never made them worse. It has always improved their storm tolerance. In addition, it improves their trust and learning in general training, especially with other items they are afraid of. I do give them leeway. This means if they come and lay next to me, I will massage. If they chooses to get up and pace, I let them de-stress with movement. Usually, they'll chose to come back to me of their own choice. As long as they are not a danger to themselves or digging through a wall, I won't crate. I stress I am always calm with them. If an owner is anxiety prone or upset by the dog's behavior, they WILL make the behavior worse, no matter what they do IMHO. What I see uniformly over time, is a reduction in anxiety levels. I've had dogs that were so terrified they needed special crates to contain them. By using nightly massages all have been able to be out in the house when it's storming, but all will come to me as their safe place. Some have progressed enough to simply pant mildly in storms, which is usually an 80-90% improvement. I'm aware that many find this behavior upsetting or unacceptable. I would comment that my storm scared dogs and timid dogs are simply more sensitive dogs. They are still dogs that respond to training. The positive side to them is they are very loyal, strongly bonded dogs, who make loving family dogs. The positives strongly outweigh the negatives and they do improve over time with work.

kathleen Kerr

Saturday 14th of September 2019

I adopted a 9 month old Russian Wolfhound who was terrified of his ride home (vomiting, etc.) and this fear stuck. The only way to get him in the car was one pushing and one pulling. So, I started putting him on a long line threaded thru the backseat, around a lamppost and back thru so I could push and pull simultaneously myself. Then I would climb in the back seat with him and read to him. (Engine off, going nowhere.) After a few weeks of this, I would do the same, but with the engine on--still backseat, going nowwhere, reading to him windows open just enough that there was o engine smell. Next I moved to the front seat, engine on, reading. Then one day I drove across the street and let him out to run in a field (about 300 yards away but not visible from the house.) He was overjoyed with this run, so much so that the next time I tried to get into the car to go somewhere he ran over and jumped in all set to go with me! From then on he LOVED going for rides.

Maureen Simonelli

Monday 30th of October 2017

I'm totally confused now as to what the appropriate thing to do for dog anxiety. My dog is part border collie and I'm told by my trainer who has 5 pure bred border collies that this breed is prone to anxiety. My vet also says to ignore it. Both trainer and vet say by consoling my dog I'm just making the anxiety worse. I can see that in my dog when I try to comfort him especially during vet visits. He trembles and shakes and I can see when I comfort him he trembles even more. Now many dogs don't like vet visits so not sure if this is the best example. Now that my dog (a rescue) is secure in his new home he doesn't tremble during thunderstorms. He even slept thru July 4 fireworks!

Betsy

Tuesday 2nd of July 2019

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic as I have a foster dog with storm phobia. Here’s my current belief: you can’t reinforce fear, but you can inadvertently train your dog to act afraid. You can also train your dog to not act afraid, and that dog will lie quiet and be brimming with emotion.

I pretty much do what Suzanne Clothier does. I’m calm, quiet, and deliberate in my physical contact with my dog during storms. They do experience security and comfort when nestled against my thigh and feel my forearm around them.

I don’t think sending them to their bed or crate alone helps their fear. They may comply and look calm, but that’s training, not emotion.

Cheri Fellinger

Sunday 29th of October 2017

Placed a retired show/breeding dog in a new home with a loving and attentive owner who reported the dog acting fearful of normal household noises, trying to get out the door and run away and mostly just standing frozen and trembling. I instructed her not to reward fearful behavior with coddling but she held the dog tightly when she acted fearful. I thought it would just take time but she ended up bring the dog back to me. The second the dog got out of the car on our property she was her old playful happy self. Never to act fearful here or anywhere off the property IF she is under my instruction. I am from the old school of dogs can't do two things at once so a dog in a "sit and watch me" is less able to EXPRESS fear. Does that mean she doesn't still feel scared? I don't know. I think the bottom line is each dog responds differently because it is an individual so we as dog trainers, cannot always know what to expect from different dogs. I have been a student of animal training for near 40 years and I've seen fads & gadgets come and go but when we are in it up to our eyeballs with frightened animals the only thing that works to calm them is your own self control and calm demeanor. So I think it is more about training yourself then the dog in this case. Coddling has never worked with my animals because they aren't used to it. Animals are confused when the only person they look to for direction is acting afraid for them.