Saturday, May 4, 2013

Except When You Can

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!


Anonymous said...

This is an amazing post, but I did have to read it a few times - not because you did a poor job of explaining (on the contrary!!), but because it is so complex. It's a spiral that is so easy to fall into ... yes, I'm tensing up because I don't want Rudy to shriek and snarl at the dog coming up to us and I' m afraid if I don't have him under physical control, he will bite. But that just makes him more anxious and likely to lunge. However, if you KNOW this is the behaviour that WILL come from another dog coming up - when do we trust that it WON'T happen, and act calm and happy? Does that make sense?

A lot to digest, and something to think about on our next walk!! Jane

Lynn said...

I think one of the major benefits to controlled set-ups for reactivity (like BAT) is that we humans get to practice calm emotions/behaviors, as well as making our (inevitable!) mistakes in a low-stakes context. It's made a huge difference to how I respond to triggers and unexpected situations in real life.

I do agree that anxiety is contagious, and comforting a dog while exhibiting stress yourself is problematic. I don't know that it's because we are confirming their fears (indicating to them that there is something in the environment that really is scary), or if it's just that stress signals induce a stress response. I tend to think that we're usually just providing additional negative stimuli that increases their reaction, not that we're effectively communicating "yes, that dog over there really is dangerous," but I also think it probably depends on the situation!

There are a lot of subtle things we can do that have an impact on how fearful or stressed our dogs are. But one the wider issue of reinforcing fear, I'll just point out that there's one sure way to do it: scare the dog more. I know, this isn't what you were talking about (because you know much better!), but it's on my mind. Partly because it's what a lot of people seem instinctively drawn to doing with fearful dogs, at least as regards exposing them to their triggers in uncontrolled and inescapable situations, and partly because of a recent issue with a friend's dog.

The dog is severely fearful. Like a lot of dogs with serious fear-based behavior challenges, he has a few "safe spots" in the house, places where he can run when he feels scared. His new mom found it pretty upsetting, though, when her dog would run away from her and hide behind the washing machine, shaking all over. So she reached out to friends for support.

Two friends said different versions of the following: that she shouldn't "let the dog get away with" running away, because it would "reinforce his fears" (or reinforce him for running from her). Instead, they counseled, she should chase after the dog, corner him in his 'safe' spot, and make him endure a good 5-10 minutes of petting. This would show him that "there's nothing to be afraid of" and that "petting is nice."

You know why this is bad advice (and not just because it reads like a how-to manual on getting bitten). But it's not that different from the way a lot of people approach reactivity/fear: expose the dog to her triggers to show her "nothing bad happens" or there's nothing to be afraid of, while overlooking the fact that feeling afraid is an extremely bad thing that is happening to the dog. In this case, running away was a sign that she needed to change her antecedent behavior (whatever she did before the dog would run)...there was nothing she could do afterward that would help the dog feel better about her, and quite a few things she could do to help him learn that she really was a very scary person!

marsha from fargo said...

Excellent post. I'm so glad that you clarified some of your previous comments! Our behaviors can influence our dog's behaviors!!!

Wendy K. said...

Excellent post on a complex topic. Thanks!

A to Z Dals said...

I have loved your blog ever since I found it a couple months ago... and started at the beginning to read it all up until now. You bring a lot of interesting topics to us.

I agree with everything you said - however, I want to clarify something. You were talking about Maisy learning to lunge and then turning to you for cookies...

It isn't that the classical conditioning cookies taught her that because when a dog is over threshold they can't learn. Rather, you missed her transition from at/over threshold, when classical conditioning is appropriate - to under threshold, when she was actually operant and can learn. Essentially you did the classical conditioning so well that she had a change of emotion, but you missed it.

Join the club! Or perhaps I should join your club, since your experience predates mine. I did that with my girl essentially missing the point where she went from at/over threshold to being operant. In the course of just a couple of classes, she learned to act over-wraught, complete with "hysterical" whining, panting and dilated pupils. Howevah, I was lucky, because my instructor caught it early on and we were able to turn it around in short order.

Dogs are an endless source of fascinating experiences. Thanks again for writing about yours...

A to Z Dals said...