Thursday, September 10, 2015

Does comforting a scared dog actually reinforce their fear? (Answer: who cares?)

There was a thunderstorm here last night, an event that doesn't really merit comment here in the Midwest, especially since it was a pretty mild storm. Not windy, no loud thunder booms, just your run-of-the-mill storm. But of course, when you have a thunder-phobic dog, there is no such thing as a small, run-of-the-mill storm.

When Maisy first developed her thunder phobia three or four years ago, I put a lot of time and missed sleep into the problem. I spent many nights awake and feeding her everything from deli meat to potato chips in an effort to counter-condition thunder. I also used situational anxiety meds to reduce the amount of panic she felt so the training could work better.

Overall, it was worth it, because Maisy rarely has the full blown panic attacks that she used to have when a storm would roll in. Most times she's mildly uncomfortable, choosing to stick closely to me or my husband for comfort, and we ride it out with meds, food, or missed sleep.


Last night's storm started about an hour before bedtime. Although Maisy was not panicking, she was a bit restless. She kept walking back and forth between the bedroom and the living room, where my husband was watching TV and I was reading the DSM5 as a bit of light reading homework. We invited her to sit with us several times, but it was clear that she did not want to be near the big picture window with its view of all the lightning.

I finally gave in and went to bed early. Maisy followed me into the bedroom, hopped up on the bed, pressed herself as close as she could to my side, and... fell asleep. No panting, no pacing, no panic, just sleep. All she needed to get through a scary situation was a bit of comfort.

Think about that for a moment.

I know there is a lot of talk about how comforting a dog who is scared is "reinforcing fear" - as if that's a bad thing! I personally don't believe that you can reinforce an emotion, and even if you could, I cannot imagine a living being that would volunteer to be truly scared in order to get a cookie or a hug. Of course, there are those too-smart-for-their-own-good dogs who figure out that if the act scared, they get good things. It may appear that fear (or more accurately, fearful-looking behavior) is being rewarded in those cases, and honestly, so what?

Now, I believe that Maisy was actually scared last night, and I do not think that going to bed a bit early to provide her some comfort was that big of a sacrifice on my part. But let's pretend for a moment that her behavior was a calculated attempt to get my attention. WHY IS THAT A BAD THING? Seriously, all my dog wanted was some affection! She wanted me to show her a bit of love! She wanted to be comforted! Isn't that actually a GOOD thing? Don't we humans get dogs because of the unconditional love they show us? Don't we enjoy being able to lavish all kinds of love on them in return? When it comes down to us, don't most of us say that we love our dogs more than we love most people?

How about, instead of getting all wrapped up in questions about whether or not our dogs are manipulating us, we look at their behavior as communication instead - and respond to that in a loving, caring, affectionate manner.

2 comments:

Jen Gabbard said...

There aren't enough ways to say Amen to this. I'm so tired of this debate, and I've always just tried to figure out what the best plan of action is in any given situation, rather than stating that I will or will not do A or B.

Janet Keefe said...

Thank you!! It is so difficult to ignore a fearful dog, especially when it goes against your nature and desire to comfort.
I was so relieved the day I heard it was OK to provide that comfort, but then still kept hearing it was bad.
I just try to keep a calm demeanor while comforting the dogs who need it. I don't like storms either, so if it's convenient I just take them all downstairs and put some music on. The last time I did that, they finally relaxed on the couch next to me.
I had already decided to ignore those naysayers, but it's nice to have it confirmed that it IS still OK.
Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets