In my last two posts, I told you that you can't reinforce fear. Which is all well and good, except... sometimes you can. Perhaps my last posts would have been better titled “Will Giving My Dog Treats When He's Scared Make Him Worse?” and “Why It's Okay to Comfort Your Dog.” It's not that I was lying to you so much as drastically oversimplifying the answer. And since we all know I love the complexity of dog behavior, here is a deeper look at the question of reinforcing fear.
While we think of fear as an emotion, behavior does come along with that. We can't ask our dogs how they feel. We can't have in-depth conversations or provide them with counseling. We can only make guesses about how they are feeling based on how they're acting. We know our dogs are scared when they have, well, behavior... and behavior can be reinforced.
That's the sneaky thing about classical counter-conditioning: it doesn't happen in a vacuum. In the classes I teach, we tell students to feed their dog when another dog barks regardless of what their dog is doing. The goal is to change the dog's association with other dogs, but if the student's dog barks or lunges every time before he gets a cookie, he will probably start barking and lunging more. (This is why we are so careful to keep dogs under threshold in class.)
I actually had this happen with Maisy. I did a ton of counter-conditioning with her, and it did change her emotional state about other dogs; she will now solicit play from other dogs. Unfortunately, I wasn't very careful about keeping her under threshold in those early days, and so she got a lot of cookies for lunging. There was a period of time there where Maisy would happily bounce to the end of her leash, bark once, and then rush back to me with a huge grin on her face, clearly expecting her cookie for doing her job. She wasn't upset about the dog, she just thought lunging was a neat trick that would earn her cookies. It was a pain to get rid of that behavior, let me tell you!
Something I see more often is an increase in fearful body language when the dog's person is tense, nervous, or scared. I'm not sure if the dogs are picking up on their body language, if they are emitting some stress smell that only they can detect, but it's not uncommon. As a result, I work hard to help the PEOPLE relax, because that is often the first step to getting the dog to relax.
Going back to yesterday's example, if I find my friend hiding in the closet, scared about the zombie clowns, and I anxiously pat her back and chant “it's okay it's okay it's okay” while barely breathing myself... well, she's not likely to believe me. In fact, chances are pretty good that she's going to take my behavior as a sign that she was right to be upset.
Many dogs take cues on how to act based on how their people feel. Maisy is incredibly sensitive to moods, to the point that her veterinary behaviorist has compared her to a “canary in a coal mine.” Maisy's behavior is directly linked to how the people around her feel. This can be a vicious cycle, one that I see regularly with my students. If their dog reacts, the person tenses up, getting ready for the next outburst... which tells the dog he was right to be upset. It can really spiral out of control.
Another thing I see happening doesn't really have anything to do with the cookies or the comforting per se, but rather, how those things are given. People who do frantic treat delivery, shooting the cookies at their dogs with fast, jerky motions, tend to have dogs who continue to be worked up.
So yes, technically we are reinforcing fear; the behavior is increasing. But are the dogs actually feeling more fearful? Well, we can't know for sure, but in her TEDtalk, Amy Cuddy tells the audience that our body positions can and do change the way we feel. Science has shown that the physical act of smiling can make a person feel happier. And who hasn't experienced taking a deep breath and then feeling more relaxed? So even though we'll never know for sure, it's entirely possible that by increasing the dog's fear-behaviors, we're increasing their fear-feelings. It's like emotional contagion.
Ultimately, while I think it's okay to soothe our dogs when they are upset, we really do need to be careful that we are actually comforting them, and not enabling their fear. While it's good to relieve misery, creating dogs who are overly reliant on their humans is not helpful. We can't be there for them all the time, so they really do need to learn to stand on their own four paws.
Anyway, this is probably just scratching the surface. I would love to hear from others on ways they have done something that seems to have reinforced fear. I'm sure there is a ton of complexity to this topic that I simply don't understand yet!