Comfort a frightened dog


Have you ever heard the ridiculousness that you’re not supposed to comfort a scared dog, because it will reinforce the fear? So not true.

From 4PawsUniversityFear is an emotion. Emotions are involuntary responses. 
Reinforcement refers to an increase in behavior. Behaviors are voluntary responses.
Fear is something you feel. Behavior is something you do.

From Suzanne Clothier:

If fear CAN be reinforced, it’s not by having something nice happen to you while you’re feeling afraid. For example, I’m afraid of ladders. When a ladder got knocked onto my brand new car and dented it, I said, “Oh no, my fear has been reinforced.” But if you put your arm around me and said, “It’s okay. I’m not going to let the ladder hurt you or your car ever again,” that wouldn’t make me more afraid of the ladder. It would not reinforce my physiological feelings of fear.

Not to make this all about me, but I want to clarify this ladder phobia. I’m not afraid of falling off a ladder, I’m afraid of having my hands pinched in it. I’m also afraid of fireworks blowing off the hands or killing someone I know and love. I’m not scared of the sounds of the explosions, but I haaaate them. I also hate leaf blowers. Do not get me started on leaf blowers.

I’m noise-averse, not noise-phobic.

Many dogs are noise-phobic.

Somehow, despite Leo’s barrier frustration and Mia’s anxiety, I lucked out when it came to noise phobia. Fireworks bother me more than they bother the dogs. I wish people didn’t set them off themselves. Leave the pyrotechnics to the professionals, save your fingers, and allow people with fearful dogs to find a safe place away from those shows.

This year on the 4th, I was in an airplane from Portland to Bellingham between 10-11 pm. I could see blasts of light over one in every ten houses or so. It was incredible. I enjoyed it because I couldn’t hear them, but I felt bad for every dog between those two cities. These silent fireworks seem promising, but listen to the video – they still make noise when shot off.

Rob’s dad stayed with the dogs until we got home, “because of the fireworks,” but they couldn’t have cared less. I let them out in the backyard when I got home, and we could actually see fireworks over the roofs of our neighbors’ houses (which, btw is totally illegal), and the dogs were, like, “Whatever.” I told them how brave they were.

This post, rambling though it may be, is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop. Read PuppyLeaks’ post for a more thoughtful discussion about Comforting a Fearful Dog. Then hop on over and read the others.

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Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

10 thoughts on “Comfort a frightened dog

  1. You were in Portland and didn’t tell us??? Lol. Mr. N hates fireworks. We tried drugs this year and they helped a lot. He still likes being comforted though. He was sandwiched in between us sleeping. Thanks for joining the hop!

    1. Just briefly: two hours. Stopping between LA and Bellingham. Alaska served free wine and beer though, so maybe I’ll start flying through there instead of Seattle more often!

  2. You just made the best point ever that I’ve been struggling to articulate for weeks about how fear is not going to be reinforced by something good happening. I spent so much time (and word vomit) trying to explain why comfort doesn’t reinforce fear, when just stating that “good things won’t reinforce it” makes it so much clearer. Luckily no one from the “don’t comfort” camp has left me any comments yet, since I know it’s not the easiest thing in the world to debate with so many “what ifs.” And thanks so much for the link 🙂

    Oh and did you see that Mother Nature Network (MNN) published a post today called “Should You Comfort Your Dog When He’s Afraid?” Unfortunately the first half of it’s dedicated to those who say no, but at least the end has some opinions on the yes side.

  3. Seeing fireworks from above sounds like such a cool experience! I’m glad that your pups don’t mind the fireworks at all! For the first time ever, Barley decided to be a little brave and sat with me on the couch for a little while until they started going off more consistently. I was so shocked that she wasn’t diving for cover that I was torn between wanting to comfort her and tell her what a brave girl she was and not wanting to say a word because I was afraid I’d jinx things 😉 I settled for the occasional pat as I flipped pages in the book.

  4. I’ve heard that in cities abroad they have silent fireworks which would great for our entire pack. Since they’re legal here it’s a two-three day nightmare for one of our dogs. Even with drugs and anxiety meds and kongs — it’s too much. Sherm takes days to recover from it and I’ve come to hate the 4th as a result. It’s super stressful and I’m still exhausted!! Your dogs are brave!

  5. I never understood (or followed) that “don’t comfort your scared dog” advice. It’s always seemed ridiculous to me. That’s good your dogs aren’t bothered by the noise – but, yes, agreed – why don’t folks just leave it to the professionals??

  6. Yes, yes, yes! I wish more dog owners knew this. Suzanne Clothier’s video is a great one, too.

    Our shepherds also have a lot of phobias but also don’t care about fireworks or thunderstorms. Grateful for that!

  7. Come to think of it – I heard that theory when I first brought Harley home, it sounded crazy then and it still does. This was Jaxson’s first 4th of July in Charleston. The fireworks were rather loud and lasted forever. He cuddled up with us the first few nights because he didn’t understand what was going on. I stopped what I was doing because he’s more important and we watched very loud television for the rest of the evening. Great video!

  8. YES!!! This is so important. It’s upsetting to me when I hear people say they don’t comfort their frightened dog because they don’t want to reinforce their fear (yet I doubt anyone would ever say that about a child?). I’m not sure why, but Cooper, who has a LOT of fears and phobias, ignored the fireworks this year. A couple were so close and so loud that our windows rattled… he barked then, but I think he was barking at the windows, not the fireworks. Up until this year, though, he was scared. I’d like to think (hope) that years of reassuring him have helped him overcome that particular fear!

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