Canine Fear - Why You CAN Comfort A Scared Dog
There is an idea that to comfort or even interact with a scared dog will make them practise fear more often, because our behaviour towards them has made fear worthwhile for them. Often, people have been told to ignore their scared dogs, as comforting would either give the dog an idea that there’s something to be scared of or reward their fear through attention.
The idea that we may teach a dog to be scared in the future by comforting or protecting them when they are scared in the present, because we may be reinforcing their emotional state, is misguided. Emotions are completely natural states. We can cause fear by scaring a dog but we can’t teach fear by comforting a scared dog. Dogs need guidance, they need to be able to trust the person they live with. When the dog is scared, they need us to help them. If anything, ignoring a scared dog is unkind, our job is to recognise what’s scaring them and protect them from it, make them feel as safe as possible and then increase their resilience to empower them in the future.
Whilst fearful behaviour is always related to something in the environment, even if that thing is harmless, anxiety is related to an impending sense of doom. It’s the idea that something to be scared of might occur or arrive any moment. Anxiety is an expectation of danger. That said, it may be unhelpful focusing on the differences between the two when working to help your own dog, instead looking at fear and anxiety as a self-fulfilling cycle. For example something in the environment scares the dog at short periodic intervals, like fireworks on November 5th. The fireworks never stop completely but they stop and start all night long, so the dog is scared by the sound and becomes anxious in the intervals when the sounds are not present. There begins a cycle of fear and anxiety.
Here’s a human example. I won’t eat outside our home in the garden during the latter part of the wasp season. I would rather be uncomfortably warm in the conservatory. If I do go outside, I wait anxiously for a wasp to appear and when one does I get scared. It’s a bit pathetic I know, but it’s a good way to understand how fear and anxiety can work in unison.