Can you reinforce fear in dogs? – Cambridge Puppy Training

reinforce fear in dogs

Well it’s that time again here in Cambridge, the May Balls are coming! Whilst many of us may enjoy the sight of the stunning firework displays, and even go down to the colleges to get a better view, there are those with dogs who will be dreading the very thought of it and are already planning ahead for how best to help their dogs cope. I heard someone the other day saying they don’t comfort or reassure their dog during fireworks and thunderstorms, because it ‘reinforces the fear’. Thereby increasing the likelihood of the fear reoccurring. So, can we reinforce fear?

Fear of fireworks, fear of thunder, these are not uncommon anxieties in dogs. We could go into the whys and wherefores as to why dogs develop a fear of fireworks, but that’s not what this blog post is about, we’ll save that for another day. This blog post is about the emotion of fear, and can it be reinforced by comforting or cuddling your dog?

In short, no, it can’t. It’s a common line of thought that giving your dog any attention or comfort when he is scared of fireworks of thunder will further reinforce the fear, somehow increasing the likelihood that this fear response will be seen again. This is quite simply untrue. Here’s why.

Firstly, you can not reinforce an emotion. A behaviour, yes, an emotion, no. When working with dogs we use ‘operant conditioning’ a LOT, the dog learns to ‘operate’ themselves or the environment around them in order to gain a reward. He learns what to do in order to get the treat/cuddle/toy etc. So, with this reasoning, people will often assume that a dog who is shaking under the table because of fireworks should not be stroked but should be ignored, because if we smother him with attention, he’ll have been given something nice, for behaving in a fearful way. Well, that all makes sense, doesn’t it? Except no, it doesn’t.

Secondly, dogs can not learn when in such a heightened state of anxiety. Your dog will not ‘learn’ anything when cowering behind the sofa in fear of the loud bangs outside! You’d be hard pushed to get a ‘sit’ or a ‘come’, behaviours your dog is likely fluent in, let alone actually teach your dog anything when he is in this emotional state. So reinforcing any kind of behaviour is likely not going to happen at a time like this!

Thirdly, when a dog is in this fearful emotional state, he is paying little attention to anything else going on. His focus is solely on the perceived aversive and his fight/flight response. You can be dancing round the living room like a loon, you could get the very best cut of meat from the fridge, you could do anything crazy, and he may well likely not even pay any attention to any of it. All of his attention is on the immediate perceived ‘threat’.

Fourthly, most of the physiological changes that occur in a fearful dog, such as inflated pupils, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, are all innate responses. A dog does not ‘choose’ to perform these responses, it is not so much a ‘behaviour’, it is a ‘response’ to an emotion. If a dog can not pick and choose these responses, how is he to repeat them through reinforcement?

Fifthly (is there a ‘fifthly’?), if you get down and give your dog some strokes or cuddles when he is fearful of the fireworks, are you then telling him he gets cuddles when his breathing is rapid? When his pupils are dilated? When he shakes? No, you’re not. You’re telling him he gets strokes and cuddles when lays down next to you. What behaviour is he showing? He’s walked across the floor, he’s possibly lay down or sat next to you. What physiological responses is he showing? The increased heart rate the dilated pupils etc. Can we reinforce dilated pupils? No, we can’t.

Scientific studies suggest that cortisol levels (often used as a measure of stress) do not decrease when owners pet/stroke their dogs (Dreschel and Granger 2005) however, cortisol is not the only measure to examine. Further studies by Dreschel and Granger have shown that oxytocin and prolactin (feel-good hormones) INCREASE when dogs are stroked, which does suggest a positive effect from our touch.

Try and remember, if you wish to cuddle/stroke your dog during these ‘scary fireworks’, then go ahead. What’s the worst that will happen? It won’t make any difference either way. The very WORST thing you can do is worry yourself. Emotions spread! Don’t start to flap about and panic about your dog being worried, just relax, reassure him if you wish, and try not to make more of an issue out of it all than your dog already thinks it is.

For example, I have a fear of spiders. If I see one running across the floor, I will likely feel fear and jump onto a chair! If someone then says to me ‘hey, calm down, it’s nothing to worry about I’ll deal with it’, then that would help me hugely and make me feel a bit more relaxed. If someone were to say ‘oh my god what are we going to do?? this is awful??? how will we deal with this??’, that might make me a little bit MORE fearful. Now, I realise this is extremely anthropomorphic of me, but it gets the point across. Fear is an emotion, we see physiological changes, we see involuntary responses, which we can not reinforce with any kind of ‘cuddle’. I do wonder if us humans think rather too much of ourselves to presume we could have any kind of big impact on a dogs emotional state by merely a touch of our hand.

So, cuddle your dog if you feel it may be of use, the very worst that will happen? It won’t work the way you want it to and it won’t make a huge difference.

If you would like more information on fireworks/thunder and how best to habituate your pup to these sounds, just get in touch.



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