Article by The Hague dog trainer Laure-Anne Visele about rewarding dog fear, published in October 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post
About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague
I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.
I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).
If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.
Annoying dog training stereotypes
Being a dog behaviourist, I hear my fair share of received wisdom on dog behaviour. Note how people will share this ‘knowledge’ with you with complete confidence. They watch National Geographic and have had dogs all their life, after all… I have tackled the ones I hear the most through previous blog posts:
- ‘You shouldn’t treat a dog like a kid‘ (when handlers show a modicum of respect and empathy to their dogs)
- ‘It’s always the owners’ fault‘ (when I explain what I do for a living)
- ‘Let them sort it out‘ (when one dog bullies another dog)
- ‘That dog is just dominant‘ (when a dog does, well, pretty much anything)
One was missing from the inglorious list, though: “Do not reassure your dog. It rewards fear.”
Let’s dress down that little pearl of received wisdom, shall we?
A street dog with a heavy past
My dog has a heavy past. After we adopted him, we had to re-acquaint him to many situations like street noises and other dogs. I have pro-active strategies to mitigate the risk of relapses. Working with fearful dogs day in day out, I am all too familiar with how persistent a beast fear can be, rearing its ugly head after months of no incident.
My strategy is this: if I spot something that might startle him – like a horse – I’ll say our code word for “It’s a friend”. All he has to do then is look at the ‘friend’ and I’ll cheerily say ‘yes’ then toss him a treat away from the horse. He’ll look at the horse again and get the treat again. We keep playing this game until the horse has passed us. He hasn’t been scared of horses in years but we’ve kept playing the game. The fun thing is sometimes he’ll play it even if I hadn’t said the code word. So he’ll put himself in my line of sight then look at the horse then me, as if saying: “Dude, I am LOOKING at the horse. What are you waiting for?” This game is all the more practical that he’ll systematically walk close to me – to play the game – if our paths are crossed by something fast like a bike.
The picture got more complicated when he was diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction – Alzheimer’s equivalent for dogs. Occasionally, he’ll ‘forget’ that he’s not scared of cyclists and will give a perfunctory bark. He won’t run away in a panic the way he used to but this agitation is annoying. So sometimes I’ll miss it and he’ll be barking at the bike already. What I do then is call him to me (to stop the barking), then wait for him to watch the bike again. I’ll say ‘yes’ when he glances at the bike but JUST before he barks. He comes to his senses again then and just plays the game.
Not rewarding fear but rewarding self-control: When people see me do that, they invariably tell me I am ‘rewarding his fear’… On the contrary. What might not be obvious to the untrained eye is this: I am rewarding looking at the bike and staying quiet.
The small prints: I might be rewarding the agitated barking (NOT the fear, mind, the barking), if I did not wait for him to first look at the bike silently before rewarding him. If you play that game, you have to get the timing right.
Denying your dog protection
Here is another common scenario in the park: I often see a bunch of dog people chatting and laughing on the side of the path as their dogs are ‘playing’ together. More often than not, one of the dogs is being harassed by the rest as the owners benevolently look on. The small dog starts off happy enough then gets a little scared. So he tries to create distance but the dogs give chase. After running and running for a while the small dog, out of desperation, now tries to find shelter under the park bench or behind human legs.
And this is where it happens: the dog – clearly in distressed – gets ignored or laughed at and people keep on keeping on with their merry chat. When sometimes, just sometimes, one person is sensible enough to pick him up and walk away, the owners of the bully dogs shower them with a barrage of the same old misguided advice by the well-meaning but misinformed masses: “They weren’t doing anything, they were just playing. He’ll never fend for himself if you always pick him up. Let them sort it out. You are” wait for it… “rewarding his fear.”
Not rewarding fear but giving shelter: I am not suggesting picking up your dog at the smallest sign of stress but if your dog is clearly in distress, do the right thing and help him: pick him up. Failing to do this promotes fear. Let him fend for himself too often and he will develop fear aggression, growling and barking at any and every dog. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather my dog deferred to me when in trouble.
- When I talk of helping your dog, I mean doing so smoothly and calmly, not snatching him in a panic and running out of the park shouting and screaming. Of course that would promote fear.
- When I say dogs in the park ‘harass’ each other, I am not talking of situations when all dogs are clearly enjoying themselves. Watch two energetic Boxers play and you’ll think they’re at each other’s throats when they’re just having a laugh.
You can’t reward fear in dogs
You’ll sometimes hear dog professionals usher that phrase: “You can’t reward fear.” What they mean is that emotions can be visualised on a spectrum of very unpleasant to very pleasant. If the dog is experiencing something unpleasant (fear), the theory goes, giving him something pleasant (food) will counter that and mitigate the fear. This is true in theory, but there are small prints.
The small prints:
- You could encourage your dog to ‘act‘ fearful ( rather than ‘be‘ fearful) if you shower him with food and attention every time he acts forlorn.
- Your dog might be feeling so fearful that giving him food at the time could add to his stress.
There are valid caveats like do not be hysterical when you protect your dog, do not OVER-protect the dog and do not reward attention-seeking, needy behaviour. But technically, no, there is no such thing as ‘rewarding fear’ and you are making things worse by letting your dog ‘sort it out’.