It’s okay to comfort your dog, you are not reinforcing fear!

There is a fairly common notion that if your dog is fearful and you comfort him, you are “reinforcing the fear” and thereby making it harder for the dog to conquer this fear. This, however, is not really the case, and likely stems from misunderstanding the difference between emotions (under very little, if any, conscious control) and learned responses (under variable conscious control) to particular situations. 

In the February 2019 issue of  the Whole Dog Journal, Linda P. Case has an article on comforting your dog when it is scared and she uses this analogy to illustrate an emotional response:

“I am petrified of clowns, like most rational adult humans (right?!). Everything about them is creepy to me – their red bulbous noses, crazy orange hair, ridiculous cartoon-sized shoes – all of it!


So, let’s imagine that my front doorbell rings and outside is the guy pictured above, grinning and giving me two big thumbs-up. Responding to my shrieks, my husband Mike comes running and attempts to calm me. (In reality, Mike would be bolting out of the back door with the dogs, yelling “Save Yourself”!)


For the sake of my anecdote, let’s say he’s hanging tough and comforting me.


Would Mike’s comfort cause my clown fear to increase? Of course not! Nothing can make me more fearful of clowns! Instead, it’s reasonable to assume that having someone talk to me calmly, explaining to me that clowns are not dangerous (yeah, right!) will reduce my anxiety.”

In fact, “[t]here is absolutely no evidence, not one bit, suggesting that providing comfort and security to a distressed dog causes the dog’s anxiety or fear to increase.”  (WDJ, emphasis mine.) So, why do we think that comforting our dogs will make the situation worse for them? It probably has to do with avoidance behaviors that a dog may do to help reduce his fear or anxiety. Ms Case continues:

“Stress, anxiety, and fear are emotional responses. We do not choose to be anxious or fearful; we actually have very little control over these responses. 


Conversely, any behaviors that someone uses to successfully escape or avoid fear-inducing situations are operant; we have some control over these. If these behaviors are successful – in that they lead to a reduction in anxiety and fear – they will indeed be reinforced. This is called avoidance learning and happens when fleeing a fear-producing experience results in a reduction of fear.”

In other words, if putting some distance between me and the thing that scares me (in my case snakes) reduces my fear, then I have learned something and the next time a snake crosses my path, I will head for the hills. In theory, since I learned that this works to reduce my anxiety, I have a degree of control over it, but in reality, it would take a truly Herculean effort for me to make myself hang around any snake.

“Dogs, of course, also learn this way. For example, a dog who is nervous around unfamiliar people may hide behind the couch whenever someone new enters her home…[H]iding allows the dog to avoid exposure to new people and results in an abatement of her fear…


Avoidance learning is not the same as “reinforcing fear.” It’s important to remember that anxiety and stress and fear are basic emotional responses that are involuntary and have important biological functions. Our dogs do not choose to be anxious or fearful. These are reactions to situations that a dog perceives to be unfamiliar or threatening. It is false to state that a dog chooses or willingly decides to experience fear. However, this is exactly what is implied when owners are advised to ignore their dog when he is anxious or fearful due to the erroneous belief that comforting will reinforce the dog’s fear.” (Emphasis mine).

Ms. Case goes on to cite two studies that looked at whether or not comforting a dog in a stressful situation will reduce the dog’s stress levels. In one study the dogs were tested in two ways. In one part the dogs were petted by their owners for one minute in the presence of a friendly stranger, and in the other part the dogs were not petted. The leash was then handed to the stranger and the owner moved out of site for 3 minutes. The results of the experiment were not dramatic, but they did find that the “petting scenario resulted in significantly longer periods of calm behaviors exhibited by the dogs while they were separated from their owner, compared to the no petting scenario (38 seconds versus 11 seconds of calm behavior, respectively).” 

“The results of this pilot study suggest that, when dogs are subjected to a mildly stressful situation such as a short separation from their owner, gentle petting prior to the separation can promote reduced feelings of stress and calmer behaviors. While this is not earth-shattering stuff, it is a nice bit of evidence showing that providing comfort and a secure base to our dogs is a good thing and not something to be discouraged.”

So, when your dog is feeling nervous or anxious, it is reasonable and appropriate to offer comfort (and some distance) in the presence of the scary thing. Petting, food, reassuring words, are ways in which you can help your fearful dog. Changing his emotional response to something that scares him is the first step in changing his behavior to his nemesis. Next time, we will look at what you can do to teach your dog that the clown at the front door is not necessarily something to run away from. 

Behavior or "What the heck?" General Stress: signals, management, & warning signs0 comments

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