Will walking your dog up to something scary make their fear go away? Possibly, if your dog is not very scared in the first place. But it’s not a good method for helping a fearful dog.
Fear Rarely “Goes Away”
I am afraid of flying. I hate it but I do it if I have to.
I have tried a lot of mind tricks to try to mitigate that fear. First among them is telling myself to notice all the people who aren’t afraid. Look at the flight attendants! They do this several times a week and they are fine! Look at that family, that guy over there, that frequent flyer. They are engrossed in their own affairs and not trembling. Those are my fellow humans. I should emulate them!
Guess what? It doesn’t work very well. Neither does reviewing the statistics in my mind about the safety of flying.
You know why? It’s because I’m not dealing with a rational part of my brain. My mind is not going to say, “Oh, nobody else is afraid. I guess I’ll stop.” Or, “Flying is the safest form of transport, so I’ll stop being afraid.”
It doesn’t work that way, not if you are already in the thick of it. I’m not arguing against cognitive therapy here or various forms of desensitization. But those take preparation. They aren’t spur of the moment thoughts you try to press into your mind in the middle of the feared situation.
Now, if I were just a little unsure because it was a new situation, yes, the fact that other humans are coping might be helpful. But again, I’m dealing with fear. I can’t just talk it away.
I went to music school and grew up performing from a young age. I had a fair amount of stage fright. It wasn’t usually disabling, but it could get pretty bad. It’s not uncommon among musicians.
For some world-class performers, stage fright never goes away. Pablo Casals, the cellist, was famously fearful of playing in public. I have been in a green room with a world-famous violinist, who shall remain nameless, who talked non-stop before performing, telling jokes a mile a minute and fidgeting.
When I was a young performer, my mother tried to help talk me out of my fear. She assured me the audience wished me well and wanted me to succeed. I was supposed to think about that. I was also supposed to look at all the other kids who went onstage and survived. I should rationally consider these social cues and thereby be freed from my fear.
Nope, it didn’t work very well then either. Nonetheless, I continued with such mind tricks into my adult performing career. They helped abate the fear by, perhaps, 15–20%? Deep breathing worked better. Practicing every aspect of performing to fluency helped the most, but even that didn’t eradicate the nerves.
My point in mentioning human fears is that we have cognitive skills that dogs don’t have. We ourselves can’t generally reason away fears (again, I’m excluding long-term approaches such as cognitive therapy and desensitization), so why would we expect that dogs’ fears could be easily coaxed away? But that is just what some people suggest.
Fear in Dogs
So nowadays, one of the common online responses to people who are concerned about their dog’s fear is the advice to “show the dog there is nothing to be afraid of.” Walk up to the huge statue of a bear and tap it. Go hug the male family member your dog has confused with Satan and make your dog come along. Go stand next to the low battery beeping smoke alarm so they see you don’t die.
I’ve trained only six dogs in my life. I’m not a professional. But two of those dogs had extreme fears that were, at times, disabling. Even with my limited experience, I can instantly tell when talking to another hobby trainer (or even sometimes a pro) when they have not experienced dogs with strong fears. Because they say things like “I just show them that it’s fine.” Or, “I just make sure I project confidence and leadership, and my dogs are never scared.”
If someone has worked only with dogs who were mildly afraid and just had to get used to something to be able to accept it, this “just show them” method would seem fine. Take a look, for example, at this photo of my god-dog Kaci at seven weeks old, the first time she saw this houseplant.
Kaci was in the sensitive period for socialization. The plant didn’t hurt her, she got over it, and she went on to explore other new things. It might’ve even helped if I had walked up to the plant while talking to her happily about it (see below about social referencing).
Now look at this photo of Zani as a mature adult. This was during a very hard time for her. She was having general anxiety and panic attacks. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that if you are dealing with a dog that is this shut down and afraid, you can’t “show them” everything is all right. The vet, the veterinary behaviorist, and I hadn’t even figured out the main things that were scaring her! What would I even try to show her?
These methods that have you demonstrate things and act nonchalant to a petrified dog to fix them have one thing in common. They do not respect that the dog’s fear is real. Real fear is not something someone else can brush off or “cure” with the right attitude or simple actions.
When applied to fear, these methods do not show respect for the dog as an autonomous being. Using this as your go-to method is very self-centered. “If I just act right, my dog won’t be scared.” Sorry—it isn’t about you.
Statements about how you just have to show the dog everything is OK (or for that matter, statements about how you can calm the dog down by being a better leader) come from people who think they have the answer because it worked for a dog or two. (Or maybe the methods didn’t even work at all; that person might be very bad at observing dog behavior.) I remember those days of overconfidence! Most of us go through them.
Dogs do take cues from us about how to respond to things in some situations. This is called social referencing, and there are at least two studies that show evidence of this happening between dogs and humans.
Social referencing has two parts. When social referencing is happening, first, the dog watches the human’s response to, for instance, a novel object. Then the dog performs similar behavior toward the object to the human’s.
In the studies, the humans, in the presence of their dog, either approached an object and spoke about it in an upbeat way, or retreated from the object, with fearful vocalizations and body language. The data showed that a significant percentage of the dogs responded to the human’s behavior by responding similarly to the object.
I’m not going to talk about the research in much more detail because Zazie Todd has already done a wonderful job of that on her Companion Animal Psychology blog. You can read about it on her site (and I hope you do!).
The Differences Between the Study Conditions and Real Life with Fearful Dogs
So, what they did in the study sounds exactly like what I talked about at the beginning of the post and said doesn’t work. The people’s behavior helped “show” the dog it didn’t need to be concerned about the object. This is an evidence-based blog. How can I be saying we can’t talk dogs out of their fears?
It’s because the experiments didn’t involve large magnitude fear responses.
There are several crucial differences between the circumstances of the study and the situations we find ourselves in with truly fearful dogs.
- The dogs in the research were all well adjusted enough that they could go to an unfamiliar lab, be around strangers, and cope well enough to be part of a study. These were not fearful dogs, or if they were, they weren’t afraid of anything involved in the lab environment. My formerly feral dog, Clara, likes novelty. She stuck her head straight into the streamers when we tried the fan test at home—here’s the video if you want to see it. But she could never have made it calmly past the front door for the study because of human strangers. And while Zani loves new people and copes well with new environments, if there were any odd sounds she might have gotten too upset to do the study. Summer might have been able to do it, bless her, because of all her dog trial experience. I point all this out to indicate that the dogs in the study had to have been generally well adjusted, well socialized, and not particularly fearful.
- The “novel object” used in the study was chosen to be only mildly concerning to these well-adjusted dogs. The object was a floor fan with streamers attached to it. The streamers floated in the air and blew around when the fan was turned on. In one of the studies, 18 of the 75 subject dogs were excused because they weren’t bothered by the fan at all and walked right up to it. Only one dog was excused because of more extreme fear of the fan. That tells us something, right? The goal was to be able to evoke a cautious, but not terrified response from the dogs.
There are two other things of note. First, the dogs were not leashed, so they were not forced to approach or retreat from the object. Second, the behavior of the humans was very specific. This was not something so abstract as “being a good leader” or “controlling the energy traveling down the leash.” The dogs took their cues from the humans’ approach or avoidance of the novel object, along with the human’s vocalizations.
Evoking social referencing or emotional contagion are good things to try with stable dogs when encountering something novel or a little weird (and throw in a treat while you’re at it!). But they are not the tools to use when dealing with fears, phobias, or even reactivity.
How To Help Our Fearful Dogs
Take their fear seriously. Respect them as autonomous beings. They are not an appendage that will feel everything you feel. You can’t use mind control.
Make use of behavior science and medical science. Find a good behavior consultant and a veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian who is conversant with behavior issues: someone who knows what physical conditions to rule out and who can make good recommendations for maintenance or situational medications.
I’m going to borrow fearful dog expert Debbie Jacobs‘ three steps:
- Keep the dog feeling safe. If they need a place to hide, help them with that. Don’t force proximity or hand feed. Talk to a vet about medications. And be sure not to flood the dog.
- Classically condition a positive response to formerly scary stuff. Gently toss a piece of steak every time you pass your fearful dog, if you are the scary thing. Or do this when the doorbell rings or when that awful beep happens on TV—whatever the trigger is.
- Use positive reinforcement to train fun and useful behaviors. How long before the reorientation and approach to you that starts developing out of the classical conditioning can be converted into a hand target? Or a target to a wooden spoon if hands are still too scary?
Don’t fall for quick fixes. They aren’t fixes at all. Again, think about fear. Would you walk a person with acrophobia up to the edge of a cliff to “show them it’s fine”? Do you think if you made them stay there that a special garment or special music or special aromas would help? Not likely, and not likely for your dog in the presence of what they fear, either.
And start keeping a behavior diary as early as possible, ideally before you start with medical or training interventions with your dog. It is very hard, in the uncontrolled environment of our home, with all its variables, to parse out what may or may not be helping our dogs. We are full of biases and are programmed to fall for things like regression to the mean.
What is the risk of giving your dog a treat? Zero. None. What is the risk of happy talk only? You underestimated your dog’s comfort level and he has a negative experience.Marge Rogers, Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed, Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed
And the next time you see someone on social media recommend that you just walk the dog confidently up to the thing that is scaring the crap out of them, post this article.
Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2011). Social referencing in dog-owner dyads? Animal Cognition, 15 (2), 175-185
Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2012). Dogs’ social referencing towards owners and strangers PLoS ONE, 7 (10)
Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson
Photos of Kaci, Zani, and Clara copyright Eileen Anderson. Photo of Portuguese Water Dog Bria copyright Marge Rogers.