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post #1 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-12-2009, 03:34 PM Thread Starter
Dave T
 
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Reinforcing Fear

This is a follow up to Jills article . It is by Patricia McConnell and is another example how we sometimes get things wrong.

You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms
It thundered last week during a rain storm, and it reminded me how much trouble a storm can be in the life of a dog (and for those of us who love them.) Since thunder season is approaching, this seems like a good time to talk about one of the oft-repeated, and ever-so-inaccurate pieces of advice handed out to dog owners: “You mustn’t pet your dog if he runs to you because he is afraid of thunder.”

That’s just wrong. Totally and completely and utterly wrong, but it has gathered gravitas, as things often do, because it has been repeated over and over again.

There are several reasons why that advice is wrong, here’s one of them: Fear is designed to be aversive, that’s why it is an effective way of affecting behavior and keeping animals out of trouble when they encounter something that might hurt them. Fear is aversive enough that no amount of petting or sweet talk is going to make your dog more likely to shiver and shake when she hears thunder rolling as the clouds billow and the rains begin.

Here’s the example for you of how hard it is to “reinforce” fear. What if someone tried break into your home in the middle of the night? Let’s say they did, and after the intruder left, a friend or loved one sat down with you on the couch, brought you tea and gave you a hug. Would the tea and sympathy make you more likely to be afraid if it happened again the next night? Of course not.

Can you imagine someone saying: “Well, I understand that you are frightened, but I’m going to ignore you because any sympathy that I would give you might make you more likely to be frightened if it ever happens again.” I don’t know about you, but that would be my EX friend.

One could criticize this example as one of misplaced anthropomorphism, but the fact is that this process works much the same in dogs as it does in people. The fact is, it is almost impossible to “reinforce fear.” Fear is highly aversive, and if anything, it works in reverse. I suppose, if you did it often enough, you could create an association between thunder and petting that would make your dog afraid of petting, but it is extremely unlikely to go the other way around.

It is true that you can make your dog more afraid than he already is, by doing something yourself that scares him, by forcing him into situations that scare him already or by being afraid yourself. Emotions are contagious, so if you want your dog to be afraid of thunder, then be afraid yourself! But you’re not going to make him more afraid of storms if you stroke his head and tell him it’s going to be okay.

The bad news is that petting won’t help (him or her) much either, so I’ll write next time about how to help a dog who is thunder phobic, but you might also find some ideas in The Cautious Canine, a booklet I wrote about helping dogs conquer their fears in humane and effective ways. I also wrote about why it’s okay to pet your dog when he’s scared in Bark Magazine in October of 2008.

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post #2 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-12-2009, 03:50 PM
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Interesting information. Thank you for sharing that. I have always wondered myself, as Oreo, as good as he is with people, he gets extremely hyper, when meeting someone initially. I have come to understand it is him being nervous and trying to find way of coping with new people. I had a guitarist over, that I rehearse with, and Oreo was really getting annoying in the sense that he was climbing up on the man and being distracting, so much so I quickly scooped him up and put him to sit beside me on the couch were I was - he was at a diagonal with the man with me being in the "middle". Needless to say, he calmed right down, as he seemed comfortable at that distance, and secondly because I was calm and enjoying myself. I noticed his eyes were relaxed after realizing that everything was okay and there was no need to "investigate" and distract the "intruder". That is what lead me to question the notion of not coddling a fearful dog. I do have the book the Cautious Canine and have been reviewing it as I really would like to help Oreo associate good things with other dogs, in particular, Large dogs - as that has been a main issue with us since he was a puppy. I will also be in contact with a agility training centre called the Superdogs as they have had success helping rescues overcome fear with other dogs thru training and agility.

Thanks for sharing this, as it really is something I have been asking lately.

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post #3 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-12-2009, 04:01 PM Thread Starter
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Hi Helen. Since you like reading ,another great book by Nichole Wilde called Help For Your Fearful Dog -is very good. Have you ever been to our Jiffy Lube in Whitby? Another great thing .LOL

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post #4 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-12-2009, 07:19 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by davetgabby View Post
Here’s the example for you of how hard it is to “reinforce” fear. What if someone tried break into your home in the middle of the night? Let’s say they did, and after the intruder left, a friend or loved one sat down with you on the couch, brought you tea and gave you a hug. Would the tea and sympathy make you more likely to be afraid if it happened again the next night? Of course not.

Can you imagine someone saying: “Well, I understand that you are frightened, but I’m going to ignore you because any sympathy that I would give you might make you more likely to be frightened if it ever happens again.” I don’t know about you, but that would be my EX friend.

One could criticize this example as one of misplaced anthropomorphism, but the fact is that this process works much the same in dogs as it does in people.
Hi Dave,

I know that you post lots of good information on here, and I am certainly not an expert on dogs. I _can_ speak to this, however, from the perspective of a mother... of two boys, one of whom was naturally pretty bold as a young child, the other of whom was naturally hyper-reactive. With the bold one, if he seemed to need sympathy (which he rarely did because he bounced back easily) I could give him hugs and kisses, sympathize and he'd happily go off with his new band-aid. The younger, hyper-reactive one was a different story. I couldn't give him much sympathy at all. If he fell and cried, I would check him over to make sure he didn't have any real damage, then tell him, "you're fine!" with a smile on my face and send him off. Any sympathy at all, and he'd ramp up into hysterics. (and, incidentally, he threw himself on the floor screaming in terror at thunderstorms until he was at least 4 or 5)

Both my kids had serious health problems when they were little, and I learned very quickly what worked best for each of them, to keep them on an even keel under painful and frightening hospital experiences. The hyper-reactive toddler/young child has grown into a mid-teen who is still sensitive but is much more resilient, while my Steady-Eddie son is still the same.<g> While not making a big deal of a frightening incident, or "marking" it with too much external emotion may not make it "less frightening" the next time, it certainly can keep it from getting blown out of proportion so that it "feels" bigger than it was in hindsight.

I have to bow to the experience of others when it come to dogs and puppies. But after raising my own children, and training many horses over a period of almost 35 years I can tell you this is true of both those two species. Everything I know about raising kids, I learned from training horses - Be fair, be firm, love them lots and remember that each one is an individual.


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post #5 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-12-2009, 08:17 PM
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Hi Dave, I will look that book up... But with the Jiffy Lube in Whitby... You lost me there..(???) I have been close to there but on only to the Tim Horton's beside it..

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post #6 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-12-2009, 08:24 PM
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To further add to that.. Not sure if you are making some encrypted reference to the Superdog facility, but all I noticed with Oreo is that he seemed less worried about other dogs and was more focused on what we were going to do next when I did a puppy intro to agility class. He was happier at that time. And at this point in time, I need to find something I can do with him to get him to a point where he can tolerate being near other dogs without being afraid he will be attacked. He prefers to scare the "threats" before they scare him. I will never expect him to be a social butterfly, as he is not, but just not uncomfortable, as well as personally being able to know exactly what is making him feel uncomfortable and being able to do all I can to ensure he feels safe and confident.

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post #7 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-13-2009, 02:25 AM
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Or you could just cut through all the reading and analyzing and take your dog out in storms and play, laugh, have fun, get soaked together, throw a ball, let them ENJOY along with you. Works great.

Jan
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post #8 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-13-2009, 02:26 AM
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Or you could just cut through all the reading and analyzing and take your dog out in storms and play, laugh, have fun, get soaked together, throw a ball, let them ENJOY along with you. Works great.

Jan
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post #9 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-13-2009, 08:21 AM
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I wouldn't agree with this article because YOU CAN REINFORCE FEAR! I think people do it all the time with other things. I do think thunder is unique with dogs but want to put this out there for other fear items. Kind of like clicking at the wrong time you can reinforce the wrong behavior. One example I can think of is something I have done and kind of created a monster with. When Belle was a tiny puppy and would growl or be nasty to a big dog, I would pick her up. I rewarded her fear and growling behavior until I created a tiny gremlin. Dogs are VERY different than humans so my logical pick her up thinking she was scared and protect her translated to Belle, good job that is the behavior I wanted.

Also say be careful using treats cause I do think a lot of people reward the wrong behavior. Maybe I am lucky with 3 pretty well adjusted dogs or maybe it is cause I am a lazy trainer but I never give cookies/rewards when it is a situation I want to change the behavior of. I just make my dogs deal with it or try to make a game out of it, etc. But no rewarding when getting over fears (unless it is a behavior I am sure they will understand differently- ex- walking up the dog walk, etc) You really have to know your dog for the best way to approach it as well. The good thing is they are so different in personality that they usually help each other out.

I also say if you are thinking of therapy dog be VERY careful what you reinforce! Loud noises, etc. For each of my dogs as they were younger, I would drop pans, etc and just say oops. They didn't get loved or a treat for running less, etc we just dealt with it. They all tested the same way when a loud noise happened, etc. so I think it works.

Here is an example when we were walking around at Berkley. For those of you have meet Belle you know how confident she is and what a little monster she can be. I think it is quite funny that she always deals with monuments the same way. Notice Belle did not get the reward (being pet) until she dealt with the statue.

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post #10 of 17 (permalink) Old 09-13-2009, 09:58 AM
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Karen and Jan, I agree with the fact that, like children, our dogs are each unique. Yes they are dogs first, etc, but when those bases are covered, I agree that we need to tailor our training to the individual that our dog is. With this in mind, I have to see what works for Oreo. I don't pet him when he is nervous, but at the same time I do keep him at distances where he "copes" and is feeling relaxed. He has gotten to the point where he can now look at a dog across the street without needing to bark and scare them away. This is HUGE for us, as I noticed he'd get "nervous" just at the sight of another dog a few blocks away that he'd go into a barking frenzy - wild eyed and all! In terms of people, he gets a bit nervous but not to the point he feels he needs to scare anyone off. He is shy and comes out of his shell, but what floored me is the fact he settled right down when I was firm with him, was calm, but told him to lie down ( beside me) and then he fell asleep. Then when I noticed this and him being calm that is when I pet him and spoke to him quietly. With him, I can't be overly excited or go into the high pitch voices, as he gets overly excited. LOL

This is a journey, but one where he is teaching me to really start paying attention to his signals and also be creative with how I approach different things with him. I am also going to rephrase what I said earlier about questioning that coddling can escalate or encourage fear. I was questioning that approach with Oreo as an individual, as me ignoring him escalates it, but rather if I set up the situation where he can cope and deal with the situation to the point of feeling secure, is when I give him all his praise for being such a brave boy.

Amanda, thanks for sharing that video, that is helpful. You have definitely adapted your approach to Belle and I think that is the key - finding what works and sticking to it. I find in our case I am SLOWLY learning - when it comes to this, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Now that I have hijacked this thread I think I better, shut up now.

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