Can We Reinforce Fear?
We are taught that touching, talking to our dogs, trying to soothe them and feel better will reward the behaviour. It’s not possible. Fear is an emotion, and your dog is not in a state of mind in which they are making a choice to react this way. In fact, it is counterproductive for an animal as this takes a great amount of energy and is upsetting for them as well. Has anyone ever tried to make you feel better when you are frightened, which resulted in you being MORE frightened?
Clients often ask me if using food when an animal is growling or barking is rewarding the behaviour. The behaviour of the growling or barking is a RESULT of fear, so again, this is not possible.
The Function of Fear
Fear is the feeling of perceived danger or a threat. Fear is not abnormal, however higher levels of fear and anxiety in our companion animals is a health and welfare issue. This often is something that needs to be addressed with a board certified veterinary behaviourist. You can discuss with your regular veterinarian as well. The behaviour you can see as a RESULT of fear is what humans dislike; growling, lunging, barking, flight/running away, chasing…. this behaviour is often a sign that your dog is fearful and it’s something that needs to be addressed.
It Won’t Get Better On Its Own
A common error is to continue exposing the animal to the trigger or environment in the hopes that they will “get over it”. This can in fact cause more harm, and we can create an even more intense response or cause an animal to shut down completely.
What Can We Do?
Above all else, we need to make our dogs feel safer in situations they are showing fearful behaviour.
1. Identify common triggers
2. Identify environments that cause fear
3. Identify frequency
4. Identify severity
5. Identify body language
6. Avoid any type of physical punishment/corrections/reprimanding or forced interactions
Keep a notebook and track how many instances your dog displays fearful behaviour. I recommend becoming an expert in reading dog body language; a great resource is www.ispeakdog.org
Classical counter-conditioning is an effective way to reduce fear. It is recommended you contact or work with a force-free dog behaviour consultant that is well versed in worked with dogs suffering from fear and anxiety. There is so much more to counter-conditioning than using food. It must be used effectively, with precise timing and at a point in which your dog is under threshold and not showing triggered behaviour.
Prevention and management is a huge portion of behaviour change. We must manage the environment to prevent reactions and triggered behaviour while you are working on behaviour modification or you will not make progress.
A great resource to help you if your dog is struggling with fear is fearfuldog.com