You Can’t Reinforce Fear

A lot of folks worry about comforting their dogs when they are afraid, and are concerned that they will reinforce their dogs’ fears.

That is generally incorrect.

  1. Behaviors can be reinforced with operant conditioning.
  2. Emotions can’t.
  3. Fear is an emotion.
  4. If you comfort your fearful dog, it is not likely to “reinforce” the fear and make them more scared next time.

If you want to get really nitpicky, it is possible to reinforce fearful behaviors. But during a noisy holiday is not the time to worry about that! You need to get through the holiday, keeping your dog feeling as safe as possible.

But don’t take my word for it.

Take Dr. Patricia McConnell’s: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Everybody’s dog is different. Maybe your dog profits from just hanging out with you. Or maybe you make her more nervous and she’d rather get in a crate or hiding place. If she isn’t too scared to eat, maybe she would like a food toy. You can judge what helps the most.

At my house, whenever possible during fireworks or thunder, we all troop to the bedroom. Summer gets on the bed with me and cuddles. I give everybody spray cheese every time it booms. Clara and Zani consequently LOVE thunderstorms. And Summer feels better being near me and profits from the routine.

Resources for Helping Your Dog Get Through Scary Times

Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Here are some resources for getting your dog through events with loud noises and some general tips about dealing with fear in dogs. Some are short term helps, and some are long term solutions. I hope you find something that will help in your own situation.

Keep your gates locked and your dogs’ identification items on.

Thanks for reading!

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                            

12 thoughts on “You Can’t Reinforce Fear

  1. Thanks a lot, always been suspicious to the advice not to comfort the dog, but the problem is you read it everywhere, at least here in Sweden, where I live! Will share your wisdom!

    1. Thank you, Nina! Most of us wouldn’t make a tiny child endure fear on their own, or worse, punish them for being afraid. We don’t need to do those things to dogs, either!

    1. I think this is a pingback, but in case my reply comes through–I agree with this comment! Really good point about not luring the dog to the scary thing with food. It is so tempting to do, but can have really negative consequences.

  2. It’s so sad when people are afraid to comfort their dogs. I tell people that an emotion can’t be rewarded. Fear can only be increased when you increase exposure to whatever is causing that fear. And if you add on yet more unpleasant stuff. Then I use the old analogy we all know; if your best friend comforted you when you saw a huge spider, would you be more afraid or feel comforted?

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