Can You Reinforce Fear?

“Don’t pet or reassure your dog when he’s afraid. You might reinforce his fear.”

How often have you heard this advice? It’s a common recommendation in the case of fearful dogs. Owners who support their fearful dog are guilt-tripped into thinking they’ve caused (or at least worsened) their dogs’ issues.

Photo by Mike Sagmeister

While the idea that fear can be reinforced seems reasonable, closer examination reveals just how ridiculous and inhumane the idea that fearful dogs should be ignored really is.

Let’s pretend that you’re waiting in line at the bank, minding your own business, when an armed robber enters the building. You and the other customers are held at gunpoint and in fear for your life. After a tense stand-off, the robber gives himself up to the police and you run out of the building into the arms of your friends and family.

If your loved ones hug and comfort you, are you going to be more afraid next time you’re held at gunpoint? Didn’t they reinforce your fear?

Think about it: fear sucks. It doesn’t feel good to be afraid, and the aversive nature of the emotion means that it’s really difficult to make an animal desire to be afraid. We feel fear because we believe ourselves to be unsafe, not because it’s been rewarded in the past.

There’s actually some pretty compelling science that shows that, rather than reinforcing fear, using rewards in a fear-inducing situation can overcome it.

Consider a rat living in an operant conditioning box in a laboratory. The rat has learned that when a light goes on in his cage, it means he’s going to receive an electric shock. When the light goes on, the rat huddles in a corner of his cage, clearly terrified. Now let’s say that every time the light goes on, a food pellet is dispensed into the rat’s food bowl right after the electric shock. What would you expect to happen?

If we believe that fear can be reinforced, we would expect that the rat’s fearful behavior would become worse, since we’re giving him food when he’s clearly in a fearful state. However, this isn’t the case at all. In fact, over time the rat stops cowering as much when the light goes on, even though he still knows he’s going to get shocked. He’s learned that pleasant things will follow the unpleasant thing, and while he’s still afraid, he’s less so than he used to be.

This isn’t to say that your response to your dog’s fearful behavior may not increase his anxiety. Fear is highly contagious, and if you’re nervous or uncertain yourself when you try to reassure your dog he may very well become more upset.

I oftentimes see this with owners who pick their small dogs up when the dog shows nervousness around other dogs. While there’s nothing wrong with picking your dog up if he feels unsafe, how you do so can be a big deal. If you scoop him up and clutch him tightly in fear, he’s going to think, “wow, mom’s really upset. I was right, that dog was dangerous!”  If, instead, you calmly pick him up while chatting to him in a cheerful and relaxed tone, you can begin to teach him that you’ll keep him safe, but that the entire situation really isn’t a big deal.

What this means in a practical sense is that there may be times when it’s better not to reassure or pet your fearful dog: but only because you’re upset yourself. Calm your own emotions before you attempt to calm your dog, and you’ll both be better off. And by the way, be careful what you tell your dog. Dogs aren’t stupid, and telling your dog that he’s okay when he’s very clearly not isn’t going to solve the problem. The best way to reassure your dog is to show him by your actions that you will protect him from the scary situation by avoiding it altogether or by removing him to a place where he feels safe. Asking a fearful dog to cope with something that he feels threatened by isn’t going to make his fear magically melt away, and may in fact further sensitize him.

The bottom line is that dogs don’t want to feel afraid, any more than we do. Fear isn’t always reasonable. While we may understand that the things our dog finds frightening are harmless, our dog doesn’t get that. Forcing them to face their fears because we feel those fears are silly damages our relationship and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Fears and phobias are sticky things, as anyone who’s ever felt afraid yourself understands. If you’re terrified of snakes, you’re not going to be okay with me placing a ball python on your lap, even if I laugh at you and tell you that it can’t hurt you.

So next time your dog feels afraid, go ahead and pet him. Heck, feed him some pieces of hot dog and break out his favorite tug toy! As long as you’re calm and relaxed yourself, you’re not going to make his fear worse. Who knows, maybe you’ll even help him feel better. Your dog deserves your friendship and support, so please give it to him. You’re not going to reinforce the fear. Honest.

9 responses to “Can You Reinforce Fear?

  1. I hope that people read all of this article. I think that the most important part of it, and what I have found living with a highly fearful dog, is that the human’s reaction have a significant impact on the dog’s response. I found that if I was confident and comfortable in a situation, Sparky would quickly calm. If I snatched him up and quickly removed him from a situation, I often did more to scare him than reassure him.

  2. This blog just keeps getting better and better! It’s amazing how many people will tell me to ignore my dogs when they are scared.

  3. I there, I really enjoyed this article. Can I translate it to portuguese and publish it in my blog with all the references?
    Thank you
    Sofia Pimenta

  4. Hi Sofia,

    Yes, feel free to do so as long as you link back here and include credit to me. Thanks for asking, and for spreading the word!

    – Sara
    Paws Abilities

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  6. I think its all about balance. No i don’t think you should ignore the dog, and i know you can’t reinforce fear, but you can encourage it. A toddler falls over and grazes her knee, you don’t ignore her but you certainly don’t make a massive fuss. If you do, they learnt to make more of a fuss than needed, hence the crocodile tears. I see kids fall over all the time, and they lay there perfectly fine and then only cry when mummy comes to make a fuss. If a dog is in a low state of fear, and you continue your day like normal… why would your dog have any reason to react. I can understand ignoring it may make it worse, but I do believe that if you change the way you are behaving, you are making the dog aware that there is something different going on.

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  9. Jeanne Gehrman

    Best article I’ve read on this subject. Would’ve been nice to see it a little earlier, since our neighborhood begins the firecrackers & bombs more than a week earlier. Will pass this on to my friends who own dogs. Thanks!

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