Friday, May 3, 2013

Why You Can't Reinforce Fear

Okay, I'll admit it. I thought my last post was hilarious. But at the same time, it was also absolutely serious. Here’s why:

Technically speaking, the definition of reinforcement is “increasing the frequency of a behavior.” Note that last word: BEHAVIOR. That’s important because fear is not a behavior. It’s an emotion. So, no matter how many cookies, pets, or praise you give your dog, you will never be able to cause him to feel that fear more often. It’s simply not possible.

What you can reinforce is fear-related behaviors, like cowering or whining… but it's highly unlikely. Fear-related behaviors happen because the dog is scared. If you reduce those fearful feelings, you will naturally reduce the fearful behaviors. One of the best ways to reduce fearful behavior is through counter-conditioning. If you do it correctly, you will see a reduction in both the feelings and the behaviors of fear. If you do it incorrectly, you might have no impact, or in rare instances, you might make things worse. This is why you should have an experienced behavioral consultant help you when you’re trying to modify behavior. But to say you shouldn’t comfort a scared dog because you’ll “reinforce fear” is simply not true.

Imagine that something terrifying has just happened to you. Maybe someone tried to break into your house in the middle of the night, or maybe you were chased by an army of zombie clowns leading a pack of carnivorous garden gnomes. Or something else you find terrifying, even if I think it’s completely ridiculous to be scared of that.

Now let’s say that your best friend has just found you hiding in your closet, tears streaming down your face while you chant, “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me,” over and over again. Being an amazing, caring, wonderful person, your friend would probably throw her arms around you. She might rub your back or gently stroke your hair while she tells you it’s going to be okay. She may even offer you your favorite cookie. (Or better yet, coffee! The lifeblood of life.)

Because there’s safety in the power of numbers, this will probably help you calm down. But even if it doesn’t, you will feel loved and cared for. What won’t happen is exactly what some people say will happen with dogs; your friend’s comfort is not going to cause you to start hiding in closets. You aren’t going to break down in tears or be hysterical more often as a result.

Is it possible that some people and dogs will use such behaviors to seek attention? Yes. I see this sometimes with my social work clients. In my experience, true attention-seeking behavior often comes about when the person or dog feels like they’re not getting enough attention. Or, maybe they don’t know how to request attention in an appropriate manner. Both of these things can be addressed by changing how you interact with your loved one.

I also see behavior that is labeled as “attention-seeking” that actually isn’t. When you go through a harrowing experience with someone and they respond in a caring manner, you are likely to trust that person more. As a result, the next time you’re scared, you will probably turn to her for support. It’s not that her comfort has increased your fear, it’s that her comfort has taught you that she’s a safe person to go to when you’re scared. Personally, I want my friends (and my dog!) to know that I am trustworthy. I want to be there for them, and I don’t want them to suffer alone.

Maybe that’s just me… but I don’t think so. I think the vast majority of us want to help the ones we love. We want to be the ones that they turn to when they’re sad or scared. We want to comfort them. So go ahead and do that. It’ll be okay. I promise.


MTWaggin said...

I really like your explanation of this I'm going to have to read some more and absorb it but great stuff!

KristineD said...

"... She may even offer you your favorite cookie. (Or better yet, coffee! The lifeblood of life."

I'm pretty sure my friends would skip the coffee and cookies. They would be inclined to offer a buffet of the finest psychotropic pharmaceuticals on the market.

We must have very different friends....

Wendy K. said...

Hi Crystal, I love your blog and I agree with your basic argument. I'd like to push back a teensy bit by noting that the comforter's attitude makes a difference. I've seen people reassure their dogs with some tension or anxiety in their own voice and body language. They are reacting to the dog's anxiety and not the primary stimulus but the dog doesn't know that. Those dogs appear to pick up on their person's tension rather than the comforting touch. I wonder if that's how the idea got started that comforting makes the fear worse.

When a storm is approaching and my dog presses up against me, I throw an arm around him and that does seem to help him settle. In fact, he's gotten a bit better about storms over the years, though a loud one still sends him under the bed.

Thanks for the time you take to blog. I've shared the link to your post on thresholds with a couple of people. It's an awesome treatment of that topic!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Absolutely. I see that with my training clients all the time. I've also seen it with Maisy; our vet behaviorist calls Maisy a "canary in the coal mine."