Rescue Me! (Part 1)

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.

Clara and Zani
Clara and Zani, back when they were better matched in size

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.

Clara grew up, but she and Zani are still buddies

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.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

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 many people would hesitate in Scenario #2. It’s because they are wary of “reinforcing fear.”

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 but is extremely easy to do. It can appear as benign-sounding activities like hand-feeding the dog or giving her a hug.  At its most extreme, it engenders learned helplessness. Flooding can also make the fear get worse; 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.

Most of us are willing to help our dogs escape minor irritations like a biting insect, getting wet in the rain, or the obnoxious behavior of another dog. But because of concerns about reinforcing fear, we may be unwilling to intervene when they're truly frightened of something. Does that make sense?

Reinforcing a Behavior

Some of you have noticed by now that in both scenarios, there is 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….

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13 thoughts on “Rescue Me! (Part 1)

  1. Sounds like killing several birds with one stone to me. The dog being bullied doesn’t develop a bad feeling to the other dog or dogs in general, a bad fight doesn’t erupt and the dog doing the bullying isn’t reinforced for being a jerk. Thanks!

  2. I’d never heard that the concept of reinforcing fear was not possible. I will say that the rationale and response I’ve learned about is a bit different than you describe.

    What I learned was that if a dog is behaving fearfully in the face of a stimulus that is actually not harmful, the responses you give are dependent on the behavior of the dog. Mild fearful behavior can be dealt with by allowing the dog to escape the fear inducing stimulus or by distracting the dog from the fear inducing stimulus by replacing the stimulus with something more interesting (chasing a ball, playing tug of war or something meaningful to the dog). The thing to be avoided was petting and cooing to the dog and saying, “Good dog, it’s okay, easy baby” and similar praise like sounds.

    A dog that is highly fearful would obviously be treated differently. Removing the fear inducing stimulus or removing the dog from the fear inducing stimulus would be the obvious answer. I think the most important thing would be to have a calm and low key demeanor during that process.

    I wish I could say I didn’t know anyone who would engage in flooding with an animal, but a former friend tried it on a dog of mine who I’d acquired at 4 years of age from a mildly abusive home. He was hand shy. She decided to show me how to fix it and grabbed him by the side of the neck right behind the ears and started slapping her arm right by his face. To the dog’s credit, he didn’t freak and he didn’t bite her, but she didn’t get much time to play that little game. I told her to stop and when she ignored me, I grabbed her arm, got in her face and said, “Stop. It. Now.” She stopped.

    He overcame his hand shyness naturally over time as he was always kindly treated for the rest of his life.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. Very good point about the appropriate response being dependent on the behavior of the dog. I am so glad no one has jumped in and accused me (yet!) of being overly protective. Certainly, there are times when you want to encourage the dog to explore and work things out rather than always stepping in. The situation I described in the post is not one of those, in my opinion.

      And yes, with a fear situation, I find as well that if the fear is mild, then taking an operant approach and cueing behaviors for the dog to perform works well. I don’t have any problem with talking, petting, or cooing if it is actually relieving fear. I think it often doesn’t, so it can be pointless. I do understand the downside of a dog owner who pays the most attention to a dog when it is performing dependent, fearful **behaviors** and they have been reinforced. For some unfortunate dogs, that is the situation in which they get the most positive attention. To me that’s a whole other ball of wax.

      Thanks for some good points to ponder.

    1. Oh, interesting! Thanks for posting. There will be a bit overlap with your article in my Part 2, where I cover the operant side: the negatively reinforced behavior of a dog running to me to escape something. I’ll be focusing more on everyday annoyances than fear responses, though. Long story short: it’s something to take care about, including the emotional responses that can be conditioned. But as long as the dog associates me bigtime with appetitives and fun stuff, I’m OK with being associated with relief as well. But I never want to rely on escape as a solution in situations where something can and should be done about the aversive to begin with. Thanks for the comment!

    1. Yes I am and I agree with Yvette completely. I’ll be linking to it in Part 2 of my posts on this subject since it’s relevant to the reinforcement of escape behaviors.

  3. I have found that a lot of people actually do NOT let the dog seek comfort or safety when being bullied by another dog. So I really appreciated you posting about Zani’s and Clara’s interactions.

    A lot of people think the dogs need to “work it out” or that the fearful/intimidated dog needs to learn to “stand up for himself” or whatnot. It is confusing to a lot of people that actually intervening and providing safe space or breaks in play helps dogs to learn to have better dog-dog skills. This is one of the (many) reasons that off-leash dog parks can lead to serious behavioral damage. In fact, years ago, I was told authoritatively that it was better to let dogs work it out. This was the advice of my friends’ dog trainer, and I believed it and went along with it (to a certain extent) while my dog bullied another dog. I thought, “This person is a professional, so he must know, and I must be wrong.” I have always regretted that I allowed it at all, even though I did try to stop it several times, as well.

    I was just talking with another trainer today about this happening in classes (owners taking down a barrier that was helping their dog feel safe around other dogs). I have seen owners on many occasions pull their dog out from under or behind their chairs or push the dog out of their lap so that they will “face their fears.” It is an area where a lot of confusion and misinformation abounds, and there is a lot of social pressure on owners NOT to intervene, NOT to protect their dogs (which I also experienced). Sue Sternberg talks about this a lot — how important it is to support people who do intervene on their dog’s behalf. So, the first part of this article is very needed, even without the section on thunderstorms, etc.!

    1. Thanks, Sharon. You can count me among those who used to let the dogs “work it out.” When I picked out my rat terrier Cricket from a rescue, it was because I thought she would be a good fit not only for me but for my older male rat terrier. Boy was I wrong. They fought; I let them. The fights were mostly sound and fury, fortunately, but still not a behavior I would ever want a dog practicing now. She resource guarded me (I didn’t know the term then) mercilessly and I, not knowing how to intervene, sadly let my easygoing Gabriel get pushed around. As most readers know, I adored Cricket with all my heart, but Gabriel was a fantastic little dog as well and to this day I feel badly about Gabe. So people not only need to know that it’s OK and good to intervene; in many cases they need to know **how.** I really did want to improve things between them in some day to day ways but I had no clue how to do it. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for the work you do with people and their dogs.

  4. I’ve actually heard some interesting perspectives on this lately, in a recorded webinar from a vet behaviorist on storm phobia. With true panic-type disorders like storm phobia, the possible problem with teaching the dog to come to you as their coping strategy is that you aren’t always there. So the dog’s panic could be worsened by being scared of the storm AND not being able to fine safety- you. So a question we have to ask is: will we always be there when the scary thing happens?

    Also, the specific way we comfort the dog could (A) actually make the dog more concerned, as in rapid stroking and a high pitched repeated “it’s okay” or (B) become associated with the scary thing, so that the comforting contributes to the overall fear-inducing context.

    While it is important that folks understand that in principle comforting a scared dog is the decent thing to do, we also need to communicate the right and wrong way to go about it. What we think is comforting may not be what the dog finds comforting! And people should realize that comforting the dog alone often won’t solve the problem.

    I love the point you make in here about how we can be dismissive of our dogs’ fears because they don’t make sense to us. I see this in the veterinary field ALL THE TIME. I think in these situations people often need to be coached to greater empathy.

    As always, love the blog!

    1. All great points. I wrestle with the thought of dependence/my not always being home. Since I am part of the cue for our routine though, I figure it’s better to help when I am there than not to help at all. But other arguments could be made about that! Quite a conundrum.

      When there is thunder in the forecast and I won’t be home, I do adjust how I leave my dogs since I have observed that my thunderphobe, who normally likes her space, likes to be near another dog if I’m not there. I can do that small thing for her anyway. I have a webcam and have verified that she will go lie down next to the other (crated) dog during a storm when she has the opportunity.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and kind words.

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