It is often suggested we should ignore our dogs when they are reacting in a fearful way to something, in case we ‘reward’ the fear and so encourage the dog to react the same way next time. Is it really as simple as that?
To really understand the impact of our response to our dog’s fearful behaviour we must first look at exactly what fear is. Fear is a (usually) normal reaction to something the animal finds threatening. It is closely linked to the animal’s ‘fight or flight’ response and is its way of keeping out of danger. Sometimes the animal may be scared of something completely harmless, due to past experience or a lack of the opportunity to learn how to cope with new things when young. However, for the purposes of simplicity when trying to understand how we should react to the animals fear let’s stick to those fearful responses that are justified (the effect of our reaction will be the same in either case).
The sensation of fear is involuntary i.e. the dog cannot switch it on or off at will. It can also involve different parts of the brain. In some cases, where the fear is triggered suddenly or is very strong, only the fear centre in the brain (the amygdala) is triggered and the animal responds with an instinctive reflex defence. Where the level of fear is lower, or the animal hasn’t been taken by surprise, the learning centres in the brain may also be activated. This helps the animal learn about what caused them to feel fearful and so to avoid it next time. It also enables them to subconsciously take past memories into account when deciding how afraid to be and how to react.
If past experience can affect how afraid of something a dog is can he learn to feel fearful if his owner gives him some attention? To decide that we also need to look at how animals learn. In brief they learn in two main ways. Firstly they make subconscious associations between things. If something unpleasant happens every time they are around a specific thing they will learn to fear it e.g. if another dog growls at them every time they walk past his garden they may learn to be afraid of walking past his garden. They may then start to feel afraid when walking past that garden even if the dog isn’t there.
Dogs also learn to repeat voluntary actions that result in something good happening to them and to avoid the same if it results in something bad happening. Attention is of course good and dogs will definitely repeat some behaviours that they know will get them attention. However, would they be happy to feel fear again to get more attention? Well first of all in most cases the horrid feeling of the fear itself will outweigh the pleasure of the owner’s attention. Furthermore, as fear is involuntary the dog cannot choose to fearful and therefore cannot decide ‘that got me attention last time so I am going to do it again next time’. Very occasionally a dog that is only slightly afraid may realise his behaviour (shaking, cowering, hiding, seeking reassurance) is getting his owner’s attention and so may repeat these behaviours next time. However this is unusual and even if it happens it isn’t teaching fear: the dog is learning to show voluntary behaviours that mimic fear to get his owner’s attention.
So we now know paying your dog attention won’t cause him to become more fearful, but will ignoring your dog cause any harm? Ignoring is a punishment. We use it all the time to correct unwanted behaviour. So ignoring your dog’s fear is punishing your dog’s fear, which is likely to make him feel more afraid of the trigger next time as he will have learnt that it causes his owner to punish him!
So what should we do when a dog is fearful? The key is to send your dog calm reassuring signals. Calm signals will tell your dog there is nothing to be worried about. Allow your dog to take whatever steps he wants to so he can cope with his fear e.g. if he wants to hide that is fine. If he is calm enough, try to distract him with something like a chew or a game. If your dog seeks your attention you can calmly touch him and speak soothingly to him. However do so in the same way you would if he wasn’t afraid – keep sending those ‘there is nothing wrong’ signals. Once the event is over you can then seek the advice of a Clinical Animal Behaviourist, so you can teach your dog not to be scared in the future.
If you would like more informa tion here is an interesting talk by Suzanne Clothier, author of Bones Would Rain From the Sky, on the subject of whether it is possible to reinforce fear: http://fearfuldogs.com/myth-of-reinforcing-fear/