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.

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.Can you reward a dog's fear?
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.

Will affection reward a fearful dog?

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.

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.

Can you reward a dog's fear?

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.

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?

Related posts:

How to help a dog overcome a fear

38 thoughts on “Can You Reward a Dog’s Fear?”

  1. I’m curious to read how other people alleviate their dogs’ fears because my dog’s fear in the car is so intense.

    While (with patience and effort) most of his issues are steadily improving (leash aggression, separation anxiety), none of the techniques that have worked so well in all other areas seem to help in the car (mainly when parking or dropping someone off, or when he thinks either of those things is happening. He really hates U-turns.).

    Holding or reassuring him hasn’t helped, ignoring him is the worst, and clicking and treating desired behavior doesn’t seem to get through to him in the car. Interested to hear what works for other people.

    1. My dog was also very fearful of the car. She would tremble anytime she was in it and I would have to physically place her in the vehicle….every time. I started by just putting her in the car and giving her treats, sitting with her, and then letting her get out to try and disassociate the car with all the strange new places.(Which she also hated) Then I started driving short distances not doing much to comfort her, she pretty much sat and whined at me the whole time, but she was always happy when we returned home. I did this for a long time, over a year, before she started to feel comfortable. I just kept extending the car rides and exposing her to it as much as possible. I can’t say that she loves the car but she tolerates it to be with me. At this point she loads right up and seems relaxed but it was a long road!!!

      My dog is a very nervous tempered sheltie mix and we pretty much had to use this technique for every experience. She was afraid of pretty much everything from Day 1.

    2. I have a 6 month old, smart, loving, fearful, reactive, beatiful Border Collie. Just saying the words Border Collie says a lot about my pup. He watches cars, bikes, runners, kids, strange dogs with laser focus, like they are all runaway sheep or in some cases scary Wolves, Tigers & Bears. We started Obedience 2 class & we were first to arrive & chose a tie down where every new potentially scary dog had to walk by us. The 1st set of strangers walked past us….oh no…I chose the wrong seat! Brixton started to bark, lunge & embarass me. The trainer came up to us and said, have you learned, “Look at That”? She new I hadn’t ! She then taught me how to say to Brixton “look” as a treat que. When Brixton begins to react ( or if I anticipate he is going to), I say “look at that” & click & treat, then I look at what he sees, with my peripheral vision on him, the moment when he looks again, I say, “look at that” & break his focus & click & treat him. Real life is going to continue in spite of Brixtons instincts & fears. I’m guessing, I’m teaching him to check in with me for the appropriate behavior. “Look at that” has helped us & very quickly. The concept came from “Control Unleashed” by Leslie Mc Devitt

  2. My dog has a fear of the rain and thunder, but this fear manifests itself at varying levels. Sometimes she is able to manage, sometimes it escalates and she goes beyond threshold where nothing we do could be perceived as a reward. I started comforting her (treats) when she seems to be managing well, but of late I wonder if comforting her has made her less stable. She seemed more edgy when it threatens to rain then before and be very pushy about getting attention when previously she wasn’t so much. That is something that I don’t really want to encourage particularly since if we happened not at home, it will be even worse for a dog that is used to attention and being comforted. It’s tough trying to strike a balance, hopefully we’ll see more progress as we’ve only had our dog from the beginning of this year.

    1. My dogs get so terrified of thunder and lightening. My Cocker shakes, pants and hides in shower. My Cocker mix shakes, pants, and digs at me or my 101-year-old mother, tearing her thin skin and drawing blood. I now put him behind a fence to stay away from her. I try to be a good pack leader by acting confident, standing over him and trying to calm him, snapping my fingers to distract him from the noise. I work with him for at least 1-1/2 hours each time and maybe he is getting a little better. I saw Cesar Milan calm a dog by getting him to lay down and relax; I will try that next.

  3. Cool post, will you do one soon on your opinion on mounting is it appropriate at times do you not let it at all etc. I see lots of mounting lol and curiouse to your take on it.

    Also you say you don’t use treats I wonder how you primarily train I use treats and corrections correct the negative and reward the positive. Though I joined an obedience club its great met heaps of awesome people and dogs though they do not allow you to correct your dog only treats my dog is pretty good because I feed him heaps of treats there, though I think only training this way means at least for my dog that I’d have to have treats on me all the time for him to listen.

    how does your club train

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Great idea for a topic – What’s with all the humping? 🙂 Thankfully, my dog is not much of a “mounter” which is probably why I’ve never put much thought into writing about it. Normally, I would just verbally correct the dog – not necessarily because the behavior is “bad” but because most people would consider it rude.

      I don’t use treats very often with my dog because I’m uncoordinated and he’s so responsive to verbal praise that treats just aren’t necessary. I use them when he’s learning something new or if we’re working on an extra challenging concept. I used treats quite a bit in agility and in obedience classes. The club I belonged to in Fargo uses in a combo of treats/rewards and corrections, mostly leash tugs.

      1. lol my dog is hardcore mounter, but suprisingly he usually only mounts desexed dogs though i’ve been teaching him not to with a time out, he just gets obsessive about it with some dogs.

        and then I have a rottie x staff that mounts out of anxiety or overexcitement i think his been getting better tho

  4. Elizabeth Kleweno

    Great post!!! Really made me think! Belle doesn’t like loud bangs(fireworks, air gun at the Float Plane base we live next to) and it manifests itself in a couple ways. Pacing, panting, barking, shaking. For the Fireworks, I will willingly use the dog park near our house to get out as much energy, mentally and physically as possilbe, and it helps. We also leave the TV on loud and as long as the door doesn’t open she’s fine, sleeping away on the couch. 🙂 The air guns are a little more troublesome but they are so random that a “Enough” cue(for the barking) followed by a “lay down” works well. The interesting thing I’ve noticed, is our other dog, D.O.G. is getting afraid of these noises too. The fireworks he’s not so bad about but the air gun has him tucking tale and running to me and wanting to go home while out on walks.

    I’ve been more strict this summer with our obediance when seeing another dog/dogs and going by them. Most of the time, if I see the dog and owner, I will stop, put the dogs in a sit/stay and let the other dog pass, so far, its been working pretty well, Belle’s leash agression, lunging, barking, hackles is going way down. Still working on the “On by” cue and its slowly getting there. Also helps that about 50% of the time the other dog is pretty well trained/non reactive and that really helps.

    I agree that sometimes, with some things, obediance is the answer as long as you can get through to the dog, and obediance does come with a reward, “Good boy/girl!” so while you aren’t “rewarding” the fear, you are rewarding something you asked for to help with the fear.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I think there are so many factors that come into play depending on the dog, the situation, the fear and whether or not the dog is actually scared or if we just think he’s scared.

  5. “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!).”

    I will go back and read her article but if you’re representing her thoughts accurately then I’d have to point out that I think she’s wrong in her assertion that you can’t reinforce fear through affection.

    Let’s take the same example of someone throwing treats at the dog. What if:
    1- The dog is flipping out and the owner is giving affection while the guest is tossing treats. The dog may be getting a positive (emphasis on MAY) from the guest but is still being comforted by the owner in the bad behavior. That praise of the barking, growling, etc. could very well lead to further instances of this behavior in spite of whatever the guest is doing.
    2- The dog is flipping out and the guest is tossing treats. In the dog’s state of mind he doesn’t recognize them as yummy treats and he flips out more. I’ve seen this happen before. The dog is likely saying, ‘boy, I’ve got good reason to bark at this person because they invade my space and throw stuff at me.’

    So I’ve got to say it’s wholly inaccurate to say that you can’t reinforce fear through affection. I think you could accurately say that there are cases where affection MAY benefit the dog. To qualify that further, though, I would say that there are rare few cases where affection coming from the owner will help the dog in a stressful scenario.

    Further, though, I find that if you’re looking to attempt to alleviate fear through some sort of treat or affection you will more often than not hit a brick wall. With most of the fearful, anxious, and aggressive dogs I work with they fear is far more rooted than is their desire for a treat. Now, a detractor would say that you need to slowly introduce the subject of the dog’s fear so that they can gradually allow the affection in the face of fear. I would say, though, that such is a far less humane solution as it requires so much more cumulative stress to the dog over the training period and will likely have a lower rate of success. Also, I live in the real world where this dog needs to get over his fear much quicker so as to not get euthanized, dropped off at a shelter, or given away. Trying to fix the fear with the affection therefore is the less humane option.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Hi Ty. Thank you for your help with this post. I really appreciate it. I’d be interested in hearing your take on McConnell’s article.

      I like your approach of comforting the dog with structure. Regardless of how a dog interprets affection, you just can’t argue against the benefits of providing a dog with structure.

      I agree one of the problems with desensitizing a dog through treats is the amount of time it often takes. Not only are people pressed with time, but people are impatient.

      I like the example you’ve used in the past with helping a dog get over his fear of stairs. You could spend weeks using treats to bribe the dog to walk on the stairs, or you could just leash him up, get him to calmly focus on you and face the stairs together. In this way, nearly every dog will get over his fear of stairs in about five minutes!

  6. “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 experience it as a reward.”

    I’ve got to disagree here, as well. Were the attempt to reward a treat tossed in their general direction I’d agree that such a reward would be so subtle as it wouldn’t be recognized by the dog.

    I don’t think something so overt, however, as physically cuddling a stressed out dog could be overlooked and unnoticed by the dog.

    The dog would notice it and the only question is how would the dog interpret it.

    I always say that we reward or correct ‘the present tense verb’. So were that dog, in the present tense, thinking ‘woe is me’ because of this storm than that is the behavior you are encouraging with the cuddling.

    If the dog, on the other hand, were stressed but trying to pull out then your cuddling could potentially be an impetus in that direction.

    For that reason I don’t think it’s accurate to say affection is always bad or good. I think it’s more important to realize what the dog is going through and just how the affection is received by the dog.

  7. I think the hardest thing is that we often do not know if our dogs are experiencing fear, and it is very easy to misinterpret & describe behavior that is not fearful as fear. What makes it hard is that we can only see signs of stress, anxiety or discomfort rather than have our dog say, “Hey, I’m afraid!” and the only way to identify fear is to rule out other options that could produce these same signs, such as being sick or in pain.

    Interpreting behaviors as signs of fear – as opposed to only relying on physical signs via ears, eyes, panting, tail, body posture, etc. – is that much harder. Barking and lunging at a strange person or dog may be fear. It also may be frustration and poor impulse control that has nothing to do with fear. Or it might be guarding and territorial/protective. The concept of how to reward the dog would be entirely different anyway (because the fearful dog genuinely wants to be away from the trigger; the frustrated dog often wants to be closer to it; and the protective/territorial dog wants to “win” the resource involved, even if it is space). A dog who pulls away from the vet or the groomer may be afraid. Or she may be physically uncomfortable, as most dog reject physical restraints even without pain. Dogs can seek to avoid things that are uncertain or unpredictable – loud noises, “weird” vehicles or appliances, unknown people, pets or children – without being afraid of them. People who interpret this avoidance as fear can act in ways that tell the dog they *should* be fearful of the unknown thing. Many people attribute far too many dog behaviors to fear than is warranted.

    Beyond that, I think it is really important to distinguish between dogs whose temperament (as matter of nature + nurture) inherently makes them shy/fearful vs. dogs who don’t have that type of temperament but are reacting fearfully to a situation or stimulus.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Such good points! Humans in general are terrible at accurately reading a dog’s behavior.

      Another factor with holding the fear-aggressive small dog is the possibility that simply being restrained is making the dog more stressed/fearful. This is the case with one of my cats.

  8. Interesting. It makes sense that our reaction to a situation can have an affect on how our dogs react. I think ignoring a non-aggressive fearful behavior resulting from something such as a thunderstorm can help because the dog is observing our calm behavior. I’ve been following another dog blogger who has been giving her dog affection during thunderstorms because the dog was so afraid. She said the dog’s reaction has only gotten worse. However, she recently observed that the dog does not act as afraid when she is not in the room! Do you think this is a situation where the affection caused the dog to be even more afraid, or has the dog just learned to ‘act’ more afraid in order to get more attention? Either way, it seems that in this particular situation the affection made matters worse.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That’s a really good example! It definitely sounds like the unwanted behaviors were being reinforced in this case.

  9. 50/50 and depending on the situation/fear of the dog. Dogs react different ways too. We recently had a chat with a trainer (mostly of fearful dogs) and he said the approach now a days is a bit surprising (some of them he does not agree as it just elevate the fear of the dog). It’s a tough topic. Golden Thanks for sharing. Golden Woofs

  10. Originally, I was taught to ignore the scared dog, not comfort them as it would reassure them that it was correct to be scared. For a long time I tried that but it never helped. Now I decide what the fear is and handle each situation as I feel best. In some cases, cuddling with and snuggling really helps, in others ignoring seems to work. I don’t believe there is one clear “right” answer.

  11. Sandy Weinstein

    i had always heard not to comfort, pet, etc. but sorry i do with my girls. my oldest, when she could hear, would just hide under the pillows on my bed or go to her crate. she was never destructive. the middle child did not used to be scared but this yr for some reason, does not like thunderstorms or lightning. she goes and hides. she wont even let me comfornt her most of the time. however, the 2 younger girls do seem to become more attached to me and stay very close. i have some some homeopathic remedies that i have tried and they helped some. i have a thunder shirt but have not used it yet. my dogs do not bark when they are scared, they hide behind mom. they will bark when the see people coming to the house b/c i have a long driveway, and live in the country. but they will quit as soon as i tell them to or they can smell the person. i agree with you if you get agitated, the dogs will follow suit. my oldest is more agitated when riding in the cars now, she used to so good, i think age has a lot to do with things as well and how they are raised, how connected you are with your pet children as well. i can see how giving treats might reinforce these behaviors. sometimes i will give them something to chew, like a long chew treat, to take their mind off of it or play with them. my dogs dont get destructive or start barking or wild, they just want to be close to mom.

  12. My dog, like many others, is terrified by fireworks. Even ones that are miles away that I can barely hear will send her into the bath room (no windows) where she frantically scratches at the floor. I have struggled with this issue because petting and showing calm affection doesn’t really block her obsession. I have finally come to use a sharpish verbal command like “Knock it off” which although it doesn’t block her fear does show her that being ridiculous about it is not acceptable.

  13. I found that zero carb raw diet cut her fear/ aggression by half, a good off leash run, obedience, and a good red zone type trainer worked for me. I had to find the trainer that worked for us, I still keep her safety bubble because I will always protect her from scary stuff.

  14. I have a six year old staffy and when I am at
    the park he is ok for a while off lead and for some reason he becomes submissive and just walks off. He will stop and look back then continue quickly in a frightened mode. Recall doesn’t work and I am worried that he could get injured. Do I keep
    him on lead all the time?

  15. My Golden retriever was extremely fearful of fireworks and thunder and I believe that I made things worse by saying “It’s OK” and babying him when he was upset.As he aged, his fear seemed to get worse. With my lab now, I tried to ignore her when there was thunder or fireworks and it seemed to work when she was younger. But she has gradually grown fearful and will come to lay near me when she hears something like that. She has gotten so bad though when the smoke alarm goes off in the house that she will jump on my lap (with her two front paws) and try to bury her head in my lap,if she even smells (burning material in the oven) whatever has caused the smoke alarm to go off before.She will even come and lay by me if she meets certain people (in my home) that she hasn’t seen before. (They must give off a vibe that bothers her for some reason.

  16. My dog, Luke, is terrified of loud noises such as thunder and fireworks. However, he is actually most afraid of the smoke alarm. I live in an apartment and my smoke alarms are over sensitive. Things that you wouldn’t think would set them off do sometimes set them off. This sends poor Luke to a corner, where he cowers with his tail between his legs, shaking violently. The first couple times he did this I took the old advice and ignored him, hoping that by not giving him any attention, he would snap out of it. Poor Luke, he cowered and shook for hours, and when he finally did recover from the ordeal, he would sometimes randomly have flashbacks (exhibiting the same behavior, but without any trigger). I decided the old advice was bad advice, just like rubbing your dog’s nose in his mess when he decides to potty in the house. The next time the smoke alarm went off, I showered him with affection and treats and games. This worked beautifully. He snapped out of his anxiety attack within a few minutes. The treats were especially effective. That makes sense considering Luke is very food motivated. He also doesn’t have flashbacks when I use this method. What’s more, now whenever I do something that sometimes sets off the smoke alarms, such as cook on the stove, instead of heading to the corner to cower, he comes to me with his tail wagging, hoping for treats. I adopted Luke from the local shelter over a year ago. He was completely untrained and I knew nothing about his background. I live by myself, so I am his only caretaker. This means I have been responsible for everything, grooming, feeding, exercise, veterinary care, and, of course, training. He knew nothing when I adopted him, he wasn’t even potty trained, even though he was fully grown. I potty trained him, taught him what he was and wasn’t allowed to chew on, taught him how to walk nicely on a leash, obedience trained him, and have taught him a couple of tricks and continue to teach him more. What I’ve learned is that a lot of what we thought we knew about dogs is just not true, and a lot of the old advice should not be taken.

  17. We brought a new 4 year old Pomeranian into our home 6 months ago after our last one passed away. I know a little about his previous life, but, I don’t know what has made him so fearful of everything. He’s afraid if there is something new sitting on a table, he’s afraid when I bring bags of groceries in, he is afraid if I drop something. But all of these issues are issues that resolve quickly and he goes back to being his happy self. He never barks when someone comes to the door and if we get company, he just hangs out in his bed. I guess this is his comfort zone. My biggest problem, is his fear (and he is petrified) of my adult son. He has been since the day we brought him home. He barks and barks and if my son enters the room, the dog backs himself into a corner and continuously barks. If my son tries to pet him, the dog tenses up into a frozen type position. We have tried the treat thing, where my son will throw treats when he comes into the room where the dog is. This didn’t help, at all. The dog won’t even touch the treat until after my son leaves the room. Usually, the dog is laying next to me, on the couch, when my son comes home from work. So, when the dog starts this behavior, I have calmly picked him up and set him on the floor and ignored him to show that I don’t like this behavior and if you’re going to act like that, your not going to get to sit with me. In the early weeks, before I started researching this behavior, my son would hold him and pet him or rub his belly – but,mahatma really didn’t work. I really am at a lost as to what to do to help this dog – and my son because he just wants to enjoy the dog. He wants to take him to the park or cuddle with him and the dog is making him feel bad. Our last dog simply adored his human brother. Plus, my son is our dog sitter if we need to go out of town. At this point, I can’t leave that scared little dog with what he thinks is a monster. I just don’t know what to do. I am glad you wrote on this subject and I have taken some info out of it, but, I have,also used some of the info with no luck.

  18. My bordercollie/Aussie mix gets scared of thunder and fireworks and tries to find dark constrained places to hide like closets and my basement office, especially when I’m there. I see no harm in comforting the dog when he is scared. In fact I can’t help but enjoy the time, because it seems to be one of the few times when he is cuddly rather than the usuall assertive/bossy disposition that is common with the breed. Letting him be close and some extra rubbing calms him a lot and, I think, reinforces the relationship between him and myself and consequently increases his obedience when that is neeeded.

    Scared dog = opportunity for relationship building through comforting.

  19. 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.

  20. Maureen Simonelli

    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!

    1. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. plantskidsdogs

    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.

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