Hug a scared dog today!
You might be thinking, "wait, what?"
I know that this might not be what you've been told before but, on the contrary to popular belief, you actually cannot reinforce fear. Let’s peel back the layers of fear today to understand this better so you can go comfort your fearful doggo friend knowing you’re not making that fear worse.
In this example let’s pretend you’re afraid of spiders and someone walks into the room with their 8-legged companion. “I’m afraid of spiders,” you say nervously but no one hears you. This time you speak louder, “I’m afraid of spiders!!!” This time they hear you but they don’t listen. Instead they tell you to, “stop acting that way” and then they walk over and put the spider on your shoulder.
(Just a side note here: I would literally DIE. I know there are lots of spider lovers out there so don’t be offended. I love you all and if you’d like to help me overcome my fear one day, I’m in! As long as you go at my pace of comfort)
Ok so let’s discuss this experience of not being heard first...
After this experience of having your fears ignored how would you feel around this person in the future? Would you feel safe with them? Would you feel loved, supported or like they care about you? Would to trust that they’ll keep you feeling safe in the future? How would you feel about spiders? What about if you were in a similar situation but there were no spiders...how would you feel? Relaxed? Probably not! You’d probably be scanning for danger.
We are constantly putting dogs in situations where they feel afraid, nervous or uncomfortable and when they tell us that they are afraid through the only way they can communicate it (hint: I'm talking about their behaviour), they are often ignored, labelled as problematic or even sometimes punished.
Now let’s go a bit further with this example. Let's say that you’re also moderately afraid of something else such as rats. After having the scary experience with the spider how would you feel if you were in a similar situation with a rat? Even though rats were not part of the original experience, if you were in a similar situation, your inner surveillance system would likely be warning you because you've been in a circumstance like this before that was really, really scary.
Trauma has a way to imprint on the brain. In fact, there’s a part of the brain that takes a traumatic experience and tucks it away in the cortical memory so that you can avoid a similar situation later. We all have our own unique capacity for handling stress, our dogs too. To illustrate this, picture a bucket, that’s your stress bucket. Negative experiences add to the stress bucket and if nothing is being done to empty it out they keep piling up on top of each other reducing the capacity for coping with daily stressors.
How full is your dog's stress bucket? A single traumatic experience can affect many areas of a dog’s life, how they cope with stress in the future and it can even affect their health. You know what they say, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" because it is a lot easier to take small steps to prevent a problem from happening than it is to deal with the problem itself.
Now let’s go back into that room with the spider for just a moment...
Imagine that someone brought a spider into the room and you said, “oh my. I’m really afraid of spiders.” And then someone says, “oh goodness! Can you take that spider out, my friend is scared.” And then they give you a hug, then hand you a cookie and say, "I'm really sorry I put you in that situation my friend. I'll definitely pay more attention in the future to ensure you feel safe."
Quite the contrary to popular belief, you cannot reinforce fear. Hugging, picking up, consoling or feeding a dog who is experiencing fear is not going to make the fear worse. Fear is an emotion and emotions are governed by the limbic system of the brain and biological responses in the body. Emotions are not directly influenced by consequences the way that goal-oriented behaviours are.
If picking up, hugging or petting your scared dog helps them feel safe so that they can regulate their nervous system then that is the best thing you can do for them. And if giving a yummy treat or food helps shift their emotional state from one of fear, to a state of joy, then giving treats can actually be beneficial for a fearful dog. It's certainly not going to make the fear worse!
Niki’s Notables: The only goal when a dog is afraid or over-aroused is to help them feel safe. Nothing else matters in that moment but helping them shut off the sympathetic nervous system so they can feel safe again. Get to a safe place right away, help your dog decompress and then decide if you can continue on your outing or if you should head home.