FEAR and FIREWORKS: Is it OK to comfort a fearful dog?

There are arguments both for and against comforting a fearful dog. Some science has shown the calming effects of stroking dogs with fear of thunder, yet professional dog trainers tend to say that petting a fearful dog will only “reinforce the fear.” What’s the deal with that?

 

My interpretation of the conflicting theories is that both sides are correct but, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The most glaring thing to me is that the science was conducted by researchers, in controlled laboratory settings, using very calculated, measured and emotionally neutral stroking techniques. When it comes to dog owners, the use of controlled, measured and emotionally neutral techniques is pretty much not happening at all. So it really comes down to a question of what is meant to be comforting and what actually is comforting. Let’s dig a little deeper:

 

Intentions vs Results: There’s an old proverb that goes something like, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That seems fitting for this topic because the intent to comfort a fearful dog is nothing more than that, an intent. The result, on the other hand, may be something else entirely.

 

What is generally being called comforting by concerned dog owners would probably be more accurately described as coddling.

Cod·dle /ˈkädl/ verb: treat in an indulgent or overprotective way:

synonyms: pamper, spoil, overindulge, pander to, spoon-feed, overparent, baby 

Don’t get me wrong, I totally get it. I understand that coddling feels like the right thing to do but, as well intended as it is, it is not necessarily comforting to the dog. In fact, that act of coddling often prolongs or exacerbates the dog’s fear. This is what professional dog trainers are observing in the field on a regular basis. Hence, they are warning their clients not to “reinforce fear” by attempting to comfort their dog.

 

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Side Note: There is some debate over the use of the word “reinforcement” when it comes to fear but that has to do with semantics and scientific terminology and is a geek-out-rabbit-hole for another day. 

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How Do We Define Comforting? The real question is this: Is the dog actually being comforted (fear being reduced or calmness and confidence being induced) or is the dog getting the sense that the human is also in a fearful or negative emotional state? I find that a majority of the time it's the latter which is likely just confirming to the dog that there is something to fear. Confirming the fear rather than comforting the dog appears to be the more common result of attempted comforting by dog owners and why we have old school dog training mantras like "What You Pet Is What You Get".

 

The person doing the coddling may only be "fearing" for the dog's well being but it's fear nonetheless. You see, dogs appear to be very good at picking up on human emotions but they don't always do such a great job of interpreting the finer details and complexities of human emotion. Therefore, the dog is likely to interpret your concern for their well being as though you are also afraid of fireworks. (also true for anything else the dog fears) So, for the sake of clarity, let's define "comforting" as something that actually comforts the dog by reducing fear, creating calmness or building confidence.

 

How Do We Know Which Result Is Happening? When I hear cooing tones of, "It's OK, It’s Ok.", coming from their mouth I feel pretty darn certain that the human is feeling worried or sorry for the dog (fearful-negative emotional state) and therefore is probably not in the right mental-emotional state to effectively comfort the dog. I often wonder whether they are trying to convince the dog or themselves. They might as well be saying, "It's OK, I'm also afraid." Ironically, this strategy might be comforting to another human, in a misery loves company sort of way, but for a dog...not so much. Beyond the negative emotions that are generally attached to it, trying to explain that "It's OK" is simply too much of an abstract concept for a dog to understand.

 

To Comfort or Not To Comfort? If scientists are getting positive results by using certain comforting techniques and dog owners are getting poor results by emotionally coddling their dogs, doesn’t it suggest that we should be able to find common ground somewhere between the science lab and the home environment? I believe so but there are many variables to contend with in the home. Let’s see what we can do:

 

Giving Instructions Rather Than Explanations: What if you were to be more instructive rather than trying to coddle and sooth by explaining how “OK” the situation is? For example: try saying something like, "Don't worry about it." or "Take it easy." in a calm and confident tone (no baby talk) while massaging the dog. To be clear, I’m not talking about lightly caressing the dog’s fur, I’m talking about a therapeutic massage to cause muscle relaxation. Or, perhaps it’s better not to talk at all and just silently pet your dog with long firm strokes from head to tail like a scientist would do. If you were to approach it that way, then you might be able to pull off a method of successfully comforting (relaxing) the dog both physically and mentally. You actually don’t need to say anything, just thinking it is enough. Honestly, the words probably don’t matter to the dog anyhow but word choices can have a dramatic effect on the human psyche. If you say (or think) things like, “Relax, take it easy, don’t worry about it, I got this.” you will almost certainly be in a more confident state than if you are cooing “It’s OK honey, It’s OK.”

 

Be The Confidence Your Dog Needs: When the situation calls for more confidence than a dog can muster, you need to be the source of confidence for the dog. In other words, when dogs can't be confident in themselves they can still have confidence in you...BUT, they must believe without question that you know what you are doing.

Know Thyself: Ok, time for honesty and self evaluation. Very few people have the skill or emotional strength to comfort a fearful dog correctly. Hence, when dogs are afraid of fireworks it's often better to simply put them on leash, keep them next to you so they can’t run around in a frenzy and watch a movie on high volume.

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-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

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