We are all familiar with the basic principle of dog training, based on operant conditioning: you reward the behaviors you want and you ignore the behaviors you don’t want. This is fine if you’re talking about something like jumping up on guests or sneaking onto the couch the moment your back is turned, but some people recommend this strategy when dealing with fear. But here’s the thing: ignoring your dog when she is afraid simply makes the problem worse.
Operant conditioning 101
Basically, the operant conditioning model works like this: the dog performs the correct behavior. You praise him or give him a treat (reward). If they do not perform the behavior or perform the wrong behavior they are ignored (please make sure you research dog training techniques or speak to a professional before attempting any training regime). The dog makes the connection between the correct behavior and the reward and repeats the behavior because they want to get the reward.
The problem is that the principle of reward and punishment is focused on behavior. Fear is an emotion, not a behavior. When you ignore or punish your dog for expressing fear, it’s simply going to increase the fear and confuse your dog. Your dog doesn’t want to be afraid. No amount of affection and treats will ever make your dog WANT to be afraid. You simply cannot make the dog more fearful or reinforce (encourage) fear by giving him attention or treats.
Making the connection between comfort and fear
How did your parents respond when you were irrationally afraid? Were you punished? Were you ignored? No, they tried to reassure you. They explained that what you feared was not dangerous. They told you you’d be safe. Or they hugged you. You didn’t feel worse, in fact you felt better and this is what exactly what you have to do for your dog.
Now it must be pointed out that relatively little research has been done to prove that physical affection will calm some dogs. The things dogs are afraid of tend to be quite rational. Trying to make yourself small and get somewhere under cover is a pretty good idea when you’re out in the wild and there is a lightning storm, for example. Because dogs are medium-sized and not apex predators, greeting new and strange things by going up and sniffing them is probably not as effective a strategy as barking to summon other dogs and/or running away. These emotions, and therefore the responses to them, are not going to be very easy to change. But there are some helpful suggestions you can try out – let’s call them the 4 Cs of fear control.
If your dog crawls up close to you when she is afraid, by all means give her physical comfort, particularly if you yourself are not afraid. The mere fact that you are not afraid will probably reassure her (and yes, she can tell). Touch her gently, keep your tone soothing and, if necessary, allow her to sit next to you on the couch or even in your lap, if she is small enough.
Create a safe space for her. Frightened dogs tend to like cave-like spaces (there are obvious defensive advantages to this). This can mean placing her bedding under a desk or bed so that she has some sense of security, purchasing her a covered bed, or even moving her kennel inside the house.
Other canine companions can be very useful in this regard. If she has a close canine friend in your home who isn’t afraid when she is, the presence of this friend may calm her down, even more than the presence of a human. Studies have shown that the presence of calm dogs can drop other dogs’ levels of stress chemicals like cortisol dramatically. Human companionship can also help, however. The main objective is to make sure your dog doesn’t have to face the stressor alone.
Over the long term, offering your dog treats when she’s feeling anxious will reduce her fear. As outlined above, she is not going to start quivering in fear just to get a piece of beef jerky. Fear sucks and she doesn’t WANT to feel it. But the occasional juicy treat may reduce the unpleasantness associated with whatever she is afraid of.
If she is a habitually fearful dog, you will want to do some research and some behavioral work on how to deal with timid dogs. But if you just want to stop the panic, remember the 4 Cs: Comfort, Cave, Companionship and Consumables.