“It’s ok! It’s ok!” The Misconception of Reinforcing Fear in Dogs

There’s been a lot of buzz in my comment section about reinforcing emotional states in dogs ever since I said you can’t do it.  I love the people in my life who question their answers. 

I would rather not reinvent the wheel here, so check out this great article by some people with more impressive degrees and resumes than mine before reading on.

Read it? Got it? Ok, now let’s get to some pondering.  My dog Kelso is afraid of thunder.  He is almost 11 years old and just last summer I found the best way to help him through thunderstorms.  Poor guy, that has been the story of his life; waiting for me to figure it out and being patient with all the mistakes along the way.  He really is a saint.  Anyway; acting indifferent toward him does not help.  Praising him does not make it worse.  I tried putting him in a crate. I tried telling him to knock it off and lie down. I tried holding him and reassuring him.  Old school non-science would state that crating him would be simply making the behavior associated with the fear a non-issue, telling him to cool it and lie down would be the way to step up and be the boss (rendering his emotions irrelevant–only the wishes of the almighty alpha matter to dogs! Obviously!), and that holding him and speaking sweetly to him would “reinforce” the fear he was experiencing.  Oh my, how far off base all of that is. 

Crating my scared dog certainly does make his fear a non-issue, but only for me.  His fear is still a BIG issue for him, and now he is in a small box where he can’t seek comfort.  This is the only assumption made above that is half-accurate.  But it still doesn’t do anything to help the dog out.

Demanding that my frightened dog obey a command to lie down is probably the most harmful of these three solutions.  I am terrified of the dentist.  If the dentist yelled at me to stop whimpering and lie in the chair this would not make me feel better about the situation and would most likely make me feel worse.  It is unfair to ask your dog to comply with cues (even if you have trained your dog with only positive reinforcement) when he is upset.  If your teenage daughter was sobbing about something horrible that happened at school would you tell her to suck it up and do her homework? I hope not.  I hope you would comfort her until she felt better, and then commend how responsible she is when she chose to hit the books on her own. 

Holding and comforting my dog during thunderstorms did not increase OR decrease his fear.  This is because of what I stated previously–fear is an emotional state and external things do not reinforce or punish emotional states.  You can add to the stress of the emotion or ease some of the stress of the emotion but you will not increase (reinforce) the emotion or decrease (punish) the emotion. 

So what about the behaviors associated with the emotion? Couldn’t we accidentally increase (reinforce) the shaking/panting/pacing behaviors associated with the fear of thunder by being affectionate to our dogs during these times?  No, not really.  Good behavior specialists always get at the emotion driving troubling behaviors when they can.  Change the emotion and the behavior goes away.  A mediocre way to go about changing emotion-driven behavior would be to reinforce the absence of the behavior. And, dare I say it, BAD behavior specialists purely focus on punishing the behavior caused by the emotion (often worsening the problem–think of the dentist scenario).  Helping dogs to feel better about the things that bother them drive their behaviors associated with those things in a different direction. 

Since I know you’re wondering, this is what I did to help Kelso with thunder.  I combined several things that worked OK for him and they became the winning cocktail of mechanisms.  First, he needs a dose of Melatonin.  Second he needs to wear a tight-fitting T shirt (or a Thundershirt).  Third he needs to be in a small space, preferably a bathroom (a closet would work if I had one big enough for him to go into).  And finally, I put a damp towel on the floor.  This is something I learned from Ian Dunbar, he says it helps and that no one is sure why but there is speculation having to do with air frequencies yada yada. I don’t actually care why, but it seems to have helped Kelso. 

Ok, what are your thoughts?  Still questioning your answers? I hope so 🙂


2 thoughts on ““It’s ok! It’s ok!” The Misconception of Reinforcing Fear in Dogs

  1. Did you ever try to condition the sound of the thunder to something that Kelso really loves? Just wondering if that would’ve worked, and also how difficult that would be to actually accomplish?

    1. No I didn’t because in order to successfully counter-condition a stimulus you have to meet too many criteria. You have to start with the stimulus at a neutral level (doesn’t exist for Kelso), you have to consistently pair the stimulus with the happy stuff (impossible since sometimes I’m not home, sometimes I’m sleeping, etc.) and you can’t allow the dog to experience the stimulus at fear-causing levels during the process (also impossible). Good question.

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