You’re walking on the beach with a trusted friend. In the distance, you notice something coming towards you. You’re not sure what it is, but you can feel your adrenaline rising. As it comes closer, you realize that it has six legs, is furry, and has just turned to look right at you with glowing purple eyes. It’s absolutely alive and it’s heading directly for you!
You quickly turn to your friend behind you, but she’s busy looking at something else. Finally, she notices your distress, looks at you, and then she just stands there. She doesn’t seem to see the six-legged, glowing-eyed, furry thing! You start backing up as fast as you can, but unfortunately, you are attached to your friend by a leash. You’re trapped, and she’s doing nothing but watching you panic as you try to escape.
That’s just about what happens when your dog is placed in a situation where they are afraid, they cannot escape because you have them on the leash, and you refuse to back up or comfort them because you don’t want to reinforce their fear because you believe that you will “train” them to be afraid if you back up or provide reassurance.
Now let’s repeat the above scenario, but this time when you turn to your friend and gesticulate wildly at the thing approaching, your friend walks directly up to you, talks in a calm, reassuring tone of voice, and puts her arm around your shoulders. As the thing continues to approach, she allows you to back up at will. She keeps her arm around your shoulder and continues talking in a calm voice, but you’re still really upset at the continuing approach!
Then, as if by magic, she yells out some foreign words to the thing – and it stops! You back up a little further until you’re comfortable, with your friend still by your side each step of the way. As you stand there at your safe distance, you start to feel calmer. You take a step forward to get a better look. And then you back up again. The whole time your friend talks in a soothing tone of voice, allowing you to back away and move forward at will. The thing is no longer approaching. It’s not even looking at you anymore. Indeed, it’s sitting on the ground, looking away altogether.
This second scenario could end several ways. Maybe you’re a particularly brave person and you end up walking right up and examining the thing. Or maybe you choose to leave instead – that’s enough novelty for one day! Or maybe, because you enjoy being with this friend and feel safe with her, you come back and walk with her in the future on this beach. You actually see this thing several more times, each time feeling less concern. After you’ve seen it 5 or 10 or 20 times, you stop worrying when it shows up.
And the first scenario; how might that end? Maybe you’re particularly brave, so as the thing is allowed to approach you, you desperately fight back and scream at it to stay away – which might work (reinforcing your behavior!) – or might not (it keeps approaching while you try new tactic of shutting down and not moving at all). Or maybe, as the thing is allowed to approach, you stop moving, stare at the ground, and hope you won’t die. Which you don’t!
But what is going to happen the next time your friend asks you if you want to go out? Maybe you’ll go. Maybe not. You now associate that friend with having an incredibly frightening experience and she wasn’t much use. Indeed, she caused you to be trapped in that situation, which you’re not likely to forget that easily. Because you were trapped, and because she was unwilling to provide any reassurance, you know that you’ll have to take matters into your own hands if it happens again.
Note that you and your friend do not speak the same language. In the first scenario, she’s useless and is now associated with not only being useless but putting you in a terribly fear-inducing situation. And in the second scenario? Through her body language and her reassuring touch, you learn that you can trust her. She is communicating to you that she has your back.
Compare these two possibilities. In the first scenario, you can’t get away and friend refuses to allow you to escape. She refuses to reassure you physically or emotionally because somewhere along the line, someone told her that that reassuring you would reinforce your fear and make you worse! That the way to make you brave was to make you face your fears. By yourself. With no escape possible.
Don’t confuse the world of behavior (where we discuss reinforcers and punishers and where a dog is making choices) with the world of emotions, which are operating on a different scale altogether (where dogs experience their feelings but do not make choices about increasing or decreasing them).
The way you handle a fearful dog is exactly how you would want to be handled as a fearful human. You would want to be in the presence of someone who communicated confidence and used their physical touch and voice to communicate to you, even if you did not speak the same language, that everything is okay.
When your dog is afraid, your job is to reassure them. Allow them to back up. Stop the fear-inducing thing from approaching. Allow the dog the comfort of your presence, your touch, and your calm, reassuring voice. Your voice should reflect what you know; that the thing will cause them no harm. Your touch should be reassuring and firm; the goal is to communicate safety – to allow your positive presence to build up their positive feelings while reducing their fearful ones. This is how you build trust and your dog learns to rely on you as a source of comfort and information about the world. This is how your dog comes to understand that when you say everything is okay, it really is okay.
You cannot reinforce the emotion of fear by providing physical comfort and reassurance because behaviors are reinforced, not emotions. It is a myth that reassuring a fearful dog will make them more fearful. Get them out of the fear-inducing situation until they feel better. Let them control their own process of coming to terms with their emotions. While they do so, be there and communicate that everything is okay. Do not put them in a situation where they could start to panic because that makes you become part of the problem – someone not to be trusted to keep them feeling safe.
If you’d like to learn more about this, you have options. I will be teaching a webinar on the topic of leadership on December 6th for Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. And while my topic of Leadership is not specifically about fear, it will certainly address some of these issues, such as how to carry yourself so that your dog learns that you are a source of comfort rather than distress.
In addition, we teach classes at FDSA that will absolutely help you learn to understand fear, emotions, and how to make your dog handle the world better. Dr. Amy Cook’s class, Dealing with the Bogeyman, is exactly what you need if you are focused on helping your fearful dog to feel better. That class starts on December 1st.
But the important thing to remember right now? Comforting your fearful dog will not make them worse any more than a person comforting you when you are afraid would make you feel worse.
If you’d like to test your knowledge of fear, go ahead and take this short quiz that I did on the topic. Here’s a tip: the question about comforting a fearful animal is the second most missed question! Hopefully, this blog provides some clarity around the issue.