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Can I Comfort My Dog’s Fears?

As a fairly new dog trainer, doing this job for just over eight years now, I have already come across my first real opinion, and training style, change. For those of you who have met me, and know me, you know I tend not to be hard on dogs, but I did subscribe to the belief that an owner can reinforce his dog’s fears by trying to comfort his dog. I never told an owner to approach a fearful dog with the outlook of “too bad, get over it,” but I did tell owners not to say things like “it’s ok” when their dog shows fear signs.

I even followed this own thought with my horses while horseback riding. I have a somewhat “hot” horse, who tends to think things such as branches, tree routes, or snow piles, could all be a threat. He snorts and freezes and his head shoots straight up. Sometimes it is so bad that there is nothing I can do to get him to continue forward, and I can feel his heart beating in my legs. I certainly never tried using punishment, as I have a clear understanding that you cannot punish fear away, but I did just sit on his back and wait for him to get over it.

There have been several studies done by a lot of well respected dog behaviorist, and they have discovered that the idea of being able to comfort and reinforce your animal’s fear, is fairly inaccurate. The definition or reinforcement is to increase behavior, so if comforting your dog while he is afraid is reinforcing to him, he should become more afraid the next time he encounters the thing that caused that fear, and your comforting. The fear should increase if it is being reinforced. Anyone who has experienced fear while in the presence of a person who provides them with great comfort knows, this person can help us feel better.

In counter conditioning I teach the concept of the good follows the bad. So if your dog doesn’t like strollers, they are the bad, but he likely loves some tasty food, so this can be the good. Every time a stroller passes, your dog gets a treat, and eventually your dog isn’t worrying about the bad thing, but instead focused on the good that follows, this is like taking you child to the toy store if he is good at the doctor. If we apply this concept to a fear related response, the old thinking would tell us our dog should become more afraid of the stroller, as his fear is being rewarded with a treat and thus reinforced, but this isn’t what happens. The dog responds to the counter condition (when done properly) and becomes less fearful, therefore the reward is not reinforcing your dog’s fear because he does not become more afraid.

Your praise and comforting voice, is a reward for your dog too, especially if he isn’t new to you. This praise and comfort can be the good that follows the bad, especially when the bad is bad because of fear. The key to this working, I have found, is that your cannot be afraid of the things your dog is showing the fear of, because he will know your comfort isn’t real. If your dog spooks and get nervous about skate boards for example, it is probably easy for you to comfort your dog because you are not likely afraid of skate boards. When a skate board passes tell your dog “it’s ok, it’s just a skate board” in a comforting and stable voice. If the thing that makes your dog afraid, also makes you a bit afraid, then it will be best to just do what you can to get your dog out of that fear, and you too. If you have a little Maltese, and there is a big Shepherd in your neighborhood who makes you nervous, and your dog too, skip the comforting because you cannot comfort your dog while you are trying to comfort yourself.

I have been testing this very concept with my horse. Lately it hasn’t been difficult with all the changing snow piles, every time I go out to ride, there are different formations, that my horse is convinced are Polar Bears out to get him. I usually only get to go ride twice a week, and rarely two days in a row. But each time I have gone, for the last three weeks, I have tried comforting Saffron, my horse when he gets nervous about the snow piles. Before I started this, I would often deal with his fear by turning around, or waiting until he settled and could pass by, which could have taken up to 15 minutes in the past. Just this past weekend I went out to ride and after only 30 minutes I was able to walk my horse right up to the snow piles, and even through one big snow pile, without a flinch! His fear clearly has not only not gotten worse, but it has dissipated, even with my infrequent training sessions. Just imagine what you could do for your dog if you commit to two 5-minute sessions a day!

You should never flood your dog, or drop him into the deep end and see if he will learn to swim. Flooding is an ancient and inefficient way to try to deal with fears. Taking an animal and dropping him in the middle of his worst fears, will not only not work, it is cruel and can likely cause more problems. As I said you cannot punish fears out of you dog either. If your dog is anxious about being alone, so he barks and cries, you cannot use a “training” collar to correct this problem, because you are simply punishing your dog for saying he is afraid, this will not make him more comfortable and less anxious, it will do quite the opposite. Applying counter conditioning and desensitization needs to be done carefully, please consider consulting a professional if you feel your dog could benefit from a counter conditioning and desensitization protocol. At Pawsibilities we can help your dog to over come his fears with a humane and effective approach.

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