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Understanding Fear

There’s an old superstition that if parents comforted their babies too much, they’d learn to cry for attention and become spoiled. Instead, parents were told to simply let their children cry it out. Unsurprisingly people apply this same old superstition to their dogs too. Dog’s who show signs of being scared or startled by things, we’re told to ignore or turn away from so we don’t encourage that behavior. As the fireworks season is still upon us (sorry doggios!), I think it’s important to look at what are doing to help our poor, terrified four legged friends cope with what I’m sure they think is the end of the world…

You can apply something a dog likes or enjoys to a behavior in order to increase the likelihood that behavior will happen in the future. In dog training lingo, this is called positive (because you added something) reinforcement (because you want to behavior to happen more frequently). Giving a dog a treat after a behavior is exactly how this training works. It’s not (as some believe) used as a bribe, which typically would be used before the dog performed the desired behavior. Instead it’s used after, as a payment for them doing what you asked.

This type of reinforcement works great for getting the dog to perform a trick or learn a new command. However what about when your dog is scared or frightened by something? Can your comfort make them more scared or more frightened the next time? The answer is kinda yes and kinda no.

The first big difference with a dog who is scared is that what they are experiencing is an emotion which shows itself in various behaviors. Your dog might slink down to the ground, have their tail tucked and have white “whale” eyes. These are all behaviors, many unconscious, the dog displays to show their emotion. These behaviors may be reinforced, but the fear itself cannot be.

A human example would be if I asked you to “be afraid.” You might open your eyes wide, open your mouth, you might add some kind of scream or sound to indicate you were startled – these bodily displays are all deliberately chosen based on what you think fear looks like. Now imagine if I snuck up behind you & lit off a firework. *BOOM*

What you experience in the second is involuntary. It’s natural. It’s instant. A high pitch scream, a jump, your heart will race, and a sense of panic fills you (plus a lot of distrust towards your new found dog trainer!). These reactions stem from the actual emotion you were feeling. They caused those bodily reactions.

Petting, feeding and/or talking softly to a dog who is scared helps the fearful feelings dissipate. The same way yours might when a friend or loved one gives you a hug or a pat on the back. Comforting this fear and helping them calm down after being startled or frightened is 100% the right thing to do. You’d do it for your human friend, so do it for your canine friend as well. Give them somewhere to hide at, talk soft, comforting words to them and make sure they feel secure in wherever they have taken refuge.

Now for the flipside. Behaviors on the other hand can be reinforced and repeated. A perfect example of this is a dog whining. The dog whines and it’s owners reach over to comfort the dog with some pets. The dog whines later while dinner is being made so the owner toss him a scrap to keep him out of your hair. Repeated over time, the dog learns that whining gets him or her attention and therefore will do so again, not to annoy you, but simply because it gets him what he or she wants.

Emotions are strong in animals, just like they are in humans. They feel a lot of the same feelings we do and we should do our best to make sure those feelings are good ones. Fireworks seasons is still active and booming away, so try to do all you can to make sure your pet feels safe and secure wherever they are. Esther enjoys taking refuge under the bed, so I make sure she has easily accessible water and food nearby so she doesn’t have to feel so exposed when the world is ending. These small adaptations you can make for your dog can help them through dealing with all the fearful emotions of fireworks season. Take comfort in knowing it will only be a few more days before its over! Stay safe and have a great week!

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But I Don’t Wanna!

We all have that thing we never want to do. Getting up for the gym, eating all our vegetables, getting up early for work. You name it. Our dogs are the same way. Nail trims, the dreaded bathtub or a trip for the vet. The only difference between these two things is that we know doing those unpleasant things because we know deep, deep, deep down those unpleasant things won’t last forever and they’re (probably… maybe…) good for us in the long run. You’re dog doesn’t know that. To him or her, the vet trip is forever and it’s the worst thing.

How can we make this unpleasant things more pleasant for our furry friends?

First things first, we need to recognize that everyone, including us, has a limit. In dog training we call this a threshold. It’s a point at which you exceed the dog’s ability to handle the situation and they have a reaction to it. Most often this reaction is one of fear – showing signs of stress, yawning, shaking, or what is often mistaken as “aggression” by barking, lunging, growling or snapping. If you dog is showing any of these signs you’ve gone too far. When a dog is “above threshold” the dog’s mind is in a state of fear and thus we, as trainers, cannot change the dogs reaction to this “unpleasant” thing.

In order to change the dog’s frame of mind, we need to work with the dog when he or she is “below threshold.” This process takes time and patience because we are actually changing the emotional response of the dog. Think of it in humans terms, let’s say you have a phobia of the dark. If I toss you in a room, turn off the lights and then hand you your favorite food of all time. Are you cured? Probably not. I bet you don’t even notice I brought food. You’re too busy trying to claw your way across the room to find the light switch, right? Dogs react the same way. You’ll see ones 100% food motivated dogs, completely ignore hotdogs dropped or even held right in front of their face.

Instead we’ve got to work up gradually to this scenario. Let’s say instead of turning off all the lights, we just dim them to 90% and eat your favorite food. We’ll do this for a while, then turn them back up, then back down, then up, then down, gradually getting closer to that desired darkness. And eventually, we’ll have you eating in the dark with the same reaction as if you were eating in the light. That takes time, but in the end your brain no longer experiences fear when the lights go off, instead you feel happy and excited in anticipation of your favorite food.

In dog world, I’ve been working on this with Luna. Luna, my own dog, has a phobia of people. When I first adopted her, a year ago, she would enter into panic mode (being over threshold) when she was 50 feet away. She’d freeze up, refuse to move or try and back out of her harness. We can’t teach like that, so we worked at 60 feet before she’d get into panic mode. Or we’d “stalk” a person and walk behind them which is less scary then approaching them head on.

It’s important to adapt, be flexible and above all be patient. Change emotions is hard work for both you and the dog. Pairing something awesome/pleasant with some that is mildly unpleasant (like a person from 60 feet away or a 90% dim room), works to change the reaction that that “unpleasant” thing. And it doesn’t always have to be food either. Sometimes, we get too focused on treating or praising we forget other rewards exist too. For Luna, if we approached someone head on for a few feet, her reward was to move away from that person. Sure I looked like a crazy person walking into the yard or crossing the street, but hey it worked for her. The relief she felt after having been “brave” and walking towards her fear was the reward to her.

If anyone has any ideas, topics or questions as they relate to dog behavior or training, please send us an email at and yours may be featured in our next blog!