Before we start with the nuts and bolts of helping pets with storm fear or phobia, we really have to discuss the emotional aspects of fears and phobias. No matter how much has been written or described on this, I still encounter an amazing amount of misinformation which slows or counters owners’ best training efforts.
Fear is fear
First off, an animal which is afraid — for any reason — is afraid. It is not trying to get attention, trying to dominate a human, or otherwise trying to sneakily manipulate its world. It’s just afraid, and it’s doing what comes naturally in fear.
It doesn’t matter if the fear is justifiable to us, either. I may know that fireworks are harmless and are intended for entertainment, but the dog sees the sky exploding, hears a painfully loud boom, and smells scary burning chemicals. I might understand that a temperature check is a normal part of a vet exam, the whole of which is intended only for an animal’s good, but my dog smells stressed animals and surgery scents as a stranger attempts to insert a foreign object into unspeakable areas. We forget, because we know our human world so well, how foreign and frightening it might be to someone who can’t understand our language or culture.
I often explain to clients that behavior isn’t always based on reality, but on perception. This is very applicable in preventing dog bites (“But the kid was just trying to hug the dog!” is a common accusation against a frightened dog which defended itself in the only way it knew) but equally true in sound phobias; while I know that the storm is not likely to actually do harm, it’s not really useful for me to try to rationalize it to the dog. I have to deal with the attached emotions.
Fear isn’t logical. We’ll do more with that later, but keep it in mind. Aidan Bindoff has a good piece on how deep, persistent, and unconscious classical conditioning can be: Mr. Hooper’s Sketch.
One of the reasons we love our pets so well is their unconditional love and their nonjudgmental acceptance. If I come home from work worried about a client or upset about a necessary car repair, my dog snuggles up, comforting and soothing even if he doesn’t wholly understand my emotions. We should do the same for them.
Emotions Aren’t Operant – You Can’t Create Fear with Fun
This is a very persistent myth, and I’ve seen it do terrible things to training and relationships. Let me say it again — you can’t reinforce an emotion with operant conditioning. Soothing a scared dog will not cause him to be more frightened.
Imagine if crisis counselors for panicked humans were trained this way: “Aw, don’t tell him we can work through this and it will be okay, because then he’ll think this is what he’s supposed to do and he’ll go right back on the ledge and try to jump again next week. You’ve got to be hard-nosed and tell him to get off the ledge now or he’s in big trouble. Don’t offer to help, or you’ll make him more suicidal!”
Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.
Often people are afraid to soothe their dogs or use positive reinforcement training to help them through fear, or worse, believe that they have to be more strict or even punish their frightened dogs. Even though many “authorities” still speak this wisdom, don’t fall for it! It’s all right, and even helpful, to relax a frightened dog with soothing talk, petting, and even food.
(Yes, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and his awesome researchers could probably explain how emotions are, in fact, subject to operant conditioning, academically and technically speaking, but you’re still not going to “train a dog to be more scared,” as some say. So we’ll leave aside the technical debate at least for this very practical application.)
What about crocodile tears?
We’ve all seen those toddlers who fake crying to get attention from parents, grandparents, or others; surely that’s from conditioning more fear, right?
Not exactly. One of my favorite evil hobbies is breaking the routine on these crocodile fits, if I’m in a position to do so, with an unexpected reaction to the crying. “Oh, wow! How many fingers fell off when you bumped the door?” The teary kid usually either is effectively distracted by my question or stops to stare and wonder why I don’t play the game according to the rules. Either way, the crying ceases and the supposedly overwhelming fear or pain is forgotten — because it didn’t really exist.
The emotion wasn’t reinforced; the emotion was fake in the beginning. This is usually shaped (unintentionally), rather than reinforced from actual scenes of fear. It’s easy to identify, because the crying child is visibly concerned about being observed and getting a reaction, assessing whether the fit should be escalated for proper effect. It can be easily extinguished by ignoring or neutrally interrupting the behavior. A truly fearful child, or pet, isn’t watching for others’ reactions, but is wholly involved in his own fear.
Next time: Counter-conditioning, or using emotion to fight emotion, and desensitization. See you then!