Subscribe to Our Newsletter
By Published On: April 17th, 2010

When speaking recently with a trainer/friend who I helped out with a shy dog class, she told me that one of the participants, a skilled dog handler who had worked for years with rescue dogs, mentioned that she learned two important concepts in the class.

1. You do not reinforce fear in a dog; by being kind to them, moving them away from something that scares them, moving something that scares them away, or giving them a food treat when they are scared. Think about it, when you take a sad little kid out for ice cream are you hoping to make them sadder? When the doctor offers your child a sheet of Mickey Mouse stickers when they come into the office, scared and apprehensive, do you chide the doctor for reinforcing fear in your child? (Things can come to predict scary events for both people and dogs, so if the doctor handed the child a sticker prior to each needle jab or intrusive temperature taking, in that case the sticker would let them know something bad was coming up and the anticipation of it would begin.)

Emotions, when rewarded, usually decrease in their intensity. Behaviors, when rewarded, usually increase in frequency. Think about how this applies to people and consider correlations with dogs. We share similar parts of the brain that manages this stuff so it’s often a reasonable comparison.

2. Dogs don’t learn easily, if at all, when they are too anxious, scared or stressed. The point at which operant learning effectively stops will vary from dog to dog and situation to situation, but by realizing this, she understood why dogs did not respond to either rewards or punishment when they were behaving in a fearful or reactive way.

I believe that by understanding these two concepts you are laying the foundation for effective and humane handling of fearful dogs. Just something to think about.

Share this post