I see a lot of clips and memes suggesting that paying attention to your dog when they are fearful reinforces the fear and will teach the dog to keep responding that way. Pat or praise the dog, and you reinforce the fear. It makes me cringe. Utterances like this show a need for a better understanding of behaviour and learning theory. And unfortunately, misguided information like this is usually what makes it to the masses.

People that advise this usually suggest simply being calm when your dog is fearful. Stay calm, and your dog will be calm. Not adding to the emotion IS a good plan. Being excited or reactive when your dog is already struggling with their emotions will likely just add fuel to the fire. So yes, stay calm, as best you can.

It’s Not Just a Matter of Opinion

But that is as far as I can agree. This is not a matter of differing opinions. It’s the difference between decades of studies that continue to support the role emotions play in behaviour, learning theory and cognition, versus constructed mickey-mouse models and over-simplified ideas.

Behaviour Gets reinforced, Not Emotion

So let’s return to that recommendation to ignore your scared or fearful dog. Imagine it was a child. Would you ignore the child, forcing them to struggle on their own until they calmed down? By not supporting or comforting them, they would stop being fearful? It doesn’t make sense, does it? And it’s cruel. Whether it’s a child or a dog, supporting or comforting them will not maintain or increase fear because behaviour gets reinforced, not emotions.

If your dog is scared or uncomfortable, advocate for them. Help them. Move to a more comfortable distance or give them the emotional support they need. You don’t need to leave them stranded trying to figure out how to deal with that scary thing on their own. Being empathetic and providing emotional support won’t make them more fearful.

If you have a dog who is fearful, knowing what to do to help in the moment and in the long run will make both you and your dog feel better. I can help. Comment below or get in touch with me at hippup.ca

Check out To Sit or Not to Sit for more information on this topic.