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!