The Myth of Reinforcing Fear in Dogs | How to Help and Reduce Fear in Dogs and Puppies (Early access for our Patreon community)

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Raising Your Pets, Dogs and Cats Naturally


How to Help a Dog Overcome Fear

Help for a fearful dog
Should you reinforce your dog when he’s scared?

Yes! Yes, please help and comfort your fearful dog or puppy. I get it. You may have heard that comforting a scared or fearful dog will reinforce their fear. That is just nonsense. Let’s dive a bit deeper into this topic with a study published in 2013.

The study went something like this. A dog was brought into an unfamiliar room. Then, a menacing stranger approached the dog in a threatening way. The researchers evaluated stress markers in the dog visually and by measuring the dog’s heart rate.

During the next part of the test, the dog’s owner was sitting in a chair with the dog as the menacing stranger approached. The researchers once again evaluated the dog for stress.

In order to keep the test as accurate as possible, the sequence was reversed for half of the dog participants. In other words, in half of the tests, the dog was with the owner first as the stranger approached them alone during the second portion of the test.

Stranger Test Results

The results showed that if the stranger entered the room without the dog’s owner, the dog’s stressors were very high, showing the dog was quite stressed from the situation. But, if the owner was present during the stranger interaction, the dog was considerably less stressed.

The dogs who had their owners with them first showed less of a stress response in the second scenario than the others. Meaning, after the dog experienced a stressful situation with their owners, they were not as stressed the next time when alone.

Help for a shy dog
Training a fearful dog.

The takeaway: dogs feel more secure when their humans are with them. We, humans, provide comfort and support to our dogs. We all know this in our guts and hearts.

So, to return to the “wisdom” that by comforting our dogs in fearful situations we are reinforcing their fearful behavior. And why I strongly disagree with that theory.

One of my favorite applied animal behaviorists, Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., CAAB Emeritus has this to say about the notion of not comforting a dog during a fearful event. “There are several reasons why that advice is wrong. Here’s one of them: Fear is designed to be aversive; that’s why it is an effective way of affecting behavior and keeping animals out of trouble when they encounter something that might hurt them. Fear is aversive enough that no amount of petting or sweet talk is going to make your dog more likely to shiver and shake when she hears thunder rolling as the clouds billow and the rains begin.”

If your dog comes to you for protection, by all means, comfort him. However, it is important to understand why your dog is fearful and to slowly work on a positive behavior modification program in order to change his anxiety.

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The Myth of Reinforcing Fear in Dogs | How to Help and Reduce Fear in Dogs and Puppies (Early access for our Patreon community)