If your dog wanted to jump into your lap or hide behind you when another dog was bugging her, would you let her do so? If you did, would you be reinforcing fear?
Friends and Playmates
My dogs Zani and Clara have been playing ever since the day in 2011 when Clara arrived so unexpectedly. Clara was about 10 or 11 weeks old and weighed 12 pounds. Zani was three years old and 18 pounds. Both were and are dog-friendly and good communicators.
Zani played hard with baby Clara, chewing on her neck, knocking her over, and restarting play over and over. Clara was both game and good-natured. She still is. Which is a good thing, because now Clara weighs 44 pounds, more than twice as much as Zani.
Back in those days, my teacher advised me to interrupt them frequently so they would learn to take breaks and so I could call them out of play. I did so, and taking a breather started to come naturally in their play. Over the years they have developed their own play style. It encompasses several different activities with mini-breaks between them. And to this day they will respond quickly if I call them, no matter how intense their game is.
They play well together, even with the size difference. Clara self-handicaps, lying down and rolling over and letting Zani chew on her. She can run much faster then Zani, but she never runs and tackles her or mows her down. If she is chasing Zani and catches up with her, she veers off in another direction or circles around her. That way Zani can leap on her instead.
Clara often comes out of it with her neck fur all wet from Zani’s mouthing. But she never sets a tooth on Zani. Nevertheless, I always supervise when they play.
The Only Problem
The only blemish on this idyllic-sounding situation is that Clara doesn’t always take “No” for an answer when Zani doesn’t want to play.
I’ve mentioned they are both good communicators. Zani has a selection of behaviors she performs when she doesn’t want to play that even I can read. But Clara doesn’t always respond in kind. So when Zani stops, breaks eye contact, turns away, sniffs the ground, and digs in a favorite dirt hole–sometimes Clara will politely turn away. But she also might come roaring right into Zani’s face trying to play some more. That’s when the size difference is a problem.
Hence, I stay ready to intervene when Clara is being a butt. However, if I am a little late in my intervention, Zani has figured out a method of her own. She runs and jumps into my lap. I let her stay there until Clara has calmed down enough and stopped trying to force Zani to play with her. You can see that in the movie.
What Does This Remind You Of?
I just described a situation in which Zani is uncomfortable. She runs to me to get away from Clara when she is a bully. I want to compare it to another scenario I believe is similar. First, here’s the bully one.
The Bully/Irritation Scenario (#1)
- Zani is uncomfortable with something Clara is doing
- Zani runs and jumps up in my lap
- She is safe from (out of reach of) Clara
How does that compare with the following? (Hint: they both involve escape from something unpleasant.)
The Fear Scenario (#2)
- There is a thunderstorm and it scares my dog
- She runs to me and jumps in my lap
- Her fear often lessens somewhat
I bet that in Scenario #1, most people would let their little dogs jump in their laps to get away from pushy bigger dogs. But there is a sizable group of people who have trouble with letting the dog into their lap in Scenario #2. It’s because they are wary of “reinforcing fear.”
Many eminent people have written about the fact that you can’t reinforce fear. Fear is a set of respondent behaviors that occur when the sympathetic nervous system ramps up in response to a threat. These respondent behaviors, including the emotion of fear, are not subject to operant conditioning. But the idea of reinforcing fear is “sticky” and hard to get rid of. (Here is my article about it.)
The “reinforcing fear” rationale goes something like this.
Let’s say the dog is afraid of something that we think she shouldn’t be. We think if we comfort her, we are somehow strengthening her misguided idea that there is something to be afraid of. Or that we are creating a little wimp by not forcing her to “face her fear.” Instead, we think we should use some method (usually involving deliberate forced exposure to the scary thing, or flooding) to “show her” that there is nothing scary.
Flooding is considered inhumane in animal training and is extremely easy to do. It can masquerade as benign-sounding activities like hand-feeding the dog or giving her a hug. At its most extreme, it engenders learned helplessness. There is also a large risk of the fear worsening: the animal can get sensitized rather than desensitized. When we say, “Sink or swim,” plenty of dogs sink.
But unfortunately, the ideas about “facing fears” have some cultural power behind them. They are easy to fall into because we don’t tend to take dogs’ fears seriously. Sometimes we don’t even know what the fear is about. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop us from making assumptions about how to get rid of it.
Comparing the Two Situations
I think you can see where I’m going here. Most of us would not hesitate to help our dogs get away from a bully dog, a stinging insect, a rainstorm, or a human yelling at them over the fence. But let that threat get a little less concrete, and our empathy and willingness to help can get fogged over with other concerns. Why?
I’ve made a comparison table of the characteristics of these two scenarios. Let’s see if it’s a valid comparison and if we can account for our differences in attitude.
|Dog is bothered by something.||Dog is strongly afraid of something.|
|Humans can see the problem.||Humans may not see the reason for the dog's fear.|
|We agree that avoidance is a reasonable response. It's not only useful, but clearly necessary.||Dog's fearful response seems over the top.|
|Dog may try to fix the problem on her own.||Dog appears helpless.|
|Dog isn't showing fear, just avoidance/irritation.||Dog is showing fear.|
|Our intervention clearly helps.||Our intervention may or may not help and we may not be able to tell if it does.|
I think perhaps we respond differently in the annoyance scenario because the threat is concrete and visible and our intervention can be clearly helpful.
For instance, we probably agree that Zani shouldn’t have to deal with bullying on her own if she can’t do so effectively. She generally has already told Clara five ways from Sunday that she doesn’t want to play, but it’s not working. Her avoidance is a reasonable response and is much better than escalating into snarls or a fight. Taking cover with me is an effective interruption of Clara’s behavior.
But in the fear situation, the dog may be exhibiting some extremely panicked behaviors. We aren’t sure how helpful we can be even if we try. We may not even know where the fear is coming from. Or if we do we have a value judgment about it. How silly of the dog to be petrified of a quiet peeping noise!
Is there something about this situation that pushes us into wanting to try a sink or swim approach?
We may be left in the strange position of helping our dogs when there are minor irritations they need assistance with, but leaving them on their own if they are scared to death about something. Does that make sense?
Turn It Around One More Time
One last thing: Let’s apply the “don’t reinforce the fear” rationale to the Zani and Clara situation since I do indeed let Zani escape to me. Do you think that when I let Zani jump into my lap to get away from Clara, I’m “reinforcing” her feeling that Clara is being bothersome? If I would just refuse to let her jump in my lap and say something jolly, would she “get over” her desire to escape Clara?
I really hope no one answers “yes” to these questions. Zani’s escape from Clara is a response to Clara’s behavior, not to mine. I can’t make Clara any less annoying by refusing to help Zani escape. Nor can I force a dog to get over her fear by refusing to remove her from the scary situation.
By the way, with another dog and another situation I might indeed pause before intervening if the dog were in the process of developing coping skills. I’m not saying we need to completely protect our dogs from all challenging situations. But Zani already has such skills. She is simply overpowered in the situation I describe, so I help her out.
Reinforcing a Behavior
Some of you have noticed by now that in both scenarios, there is a probably a behavior being reinforced: the dog coming to me. Yes, we may have a natural negative reinforcement scenario going on. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we explore the ethics of that part of the situation.
In the meantime, what do you think of my comparison? Did I miss something? Is it off the mark? I have debated publishing this since it is perhaps a stretch. Tell me what you think.
Then again, maybe I wrote this whole post so I could publish the old footage of Zani knocking baby Clara over….
- Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog
- Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe
- My Dog’s Safe Place: A Photo Gallery
Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016