How you may be reinforcing your pets fearful behaviours

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that doesn’t stop us trying – there’s a million different articles, websites, videos, guides and hacks out there that help change your dog’s (or cat’s!) behaviour. One of the most common issues owners want to address is fear. Fear is a complex thing, and it can manifest itself in many different ways. This means that it can be difficult to identify when your pet is fearful and, without even realising it, our actions can actually be making our pet’s fear worse. Today’s article will be discussing the common signs of fear in dogs and cats, how reinforcement can help or hinder fear training, and how you can manage your pet’s fear better.

What is Fear?

It sounds like something a Greek philosopher might say, but defining what fear actually is can help us in preventing it. Fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm”. Biologically, fear is designed to prevent animals getting into situations that cause pain or harm – fear helps keep animals alive. Nowadays, of course, pets have a lot less to fear than when they were running wild, but fear can still be useful in dangerous situations, like around roads. More often, owners find their pets are scared of harmless things, such as loud noises, other animals or people, or certain objects.

Every fearful animal reacts in different ways, so the following list is not exhaustive, but it is a good starting point to help identify fear in your pet. Dogs will commonly bark or whimper when afraid, and may be more or less restless than normal. They can urinate or defaecate in fear, or may prefer to hide, make themselves small, or avoid people. Some dogs prefer to do the opposite, and are clingier towards owners. Some can even be aggressive, so be careful. Cats show similar signs, as well as hissing, puffing out their fur, flattening their ears, and swishing their tail.

If you know your animal is fearful, make a note of what signs they are showing. Sometimes, only a few will be present, which might give you a clue that your pet is not very happy.

 

Reinforcement and Behaviour

As smart as animals can seem sometimes, emotionally they are less complex than humans, and cannot always understand situations as well as we can; animals mainly operate on instinct or from experience. This means a dog or cat that was beaten with a belt, for example, may not be able to dissociate the image of a belt with their past experience of pain and distress, and will show fear, even if the belt is not being used in that way anymore. Using a more positive example, a dog that associates a box of food being shaken with dinner, may not work out that a different box being shaken is not their food, and come running into the kitchen expecting food! We often use this method of learning, called conditioning, to train pets, via positive and negative reinforcement.

Reinforcement is where a behaviour is encouraged by associating it with something else – a stimulus. Positive reinforcement is where a stimulus is applied to encourage the behaviour, such as giving a treat after performing a trick. Negative reinforcement is where a stimulus is taken away to encourage the behaviour, such as removing pressure on a dog’s back once it has sat down, to encourage sitting. Negative reinforcement does not always mean the stimulus is negative (it sometimes can be, though these methods are usually not humane), just removal of a stimuli.

 

Reinforcement of Fear

How all this psychological talk relates to fear is this: fear is not technically a behaviour, like sitting down, barking on command, or using a litter tray, so cannot be conditioned or reinforced in the same way as behaviours can. This is important as there are many articles online stating how comforting an animal during a thunderstorm, or other fearful event, is reinforcing fear, rewarding the negative behaviour (fear) with something good (comfort), meaning the animal associates fear with a reward, so is conditioned to show fear – this is NOT true! Animals do not think in this way. Fear is an unconscious emotional response that cannot be trained like a behaviour. Always be wary of articles that discourage comforting an animal during fearful situations.

That said, although fear cannot be directly reinforced, certain things owners might do when an animal is fearful can make fear worse, which is similar to reinforcement. This can mean your pet’s behaviour in response to a fearful event gets worse, more frequent or lasts longer after it ends. Some examples of these are listed below.

The most obvious is allowing your pet to be exposed to their fear – a fearful stimuli means fearful behaviours! Although some pets will learn to face their fears, not all will grow out of it, so waiting for it to resolve can cause excess stress and will not stop your pet’s fearful behaviour in the meantime. Any form of punishment will not directly address the fear, and may make it worse, due to the extra stress – never punish an animal for showing fearful behaviour. They cannot help this feeling, and having something nasty from their owner will not help the matter.

Throwing your pet into the deep end, and exposing them to a lot of their fear is definitely not a good way to reduce fear – the animal will likely become overwhelmed and show very strong fear signs. Never attempt this; would you want to be thrown into a bath of spiders? Finally, by acting fearful yourself, this will just show your pet that they were right to be fearful, and they will continue! If there’s something scary, try to be brave and act confident and calm around your pet (which is what the advice about not “reinforcing” fear is aimed at).

 

How to Reduce Fear in Your Pets

We will keep this brief, as reducing fear is not the main topic of this article, and there are many different ways to help reduce fear, but here are a few tips you might want to try. As mentioned above, never ignore your fearful pet – when your pet is afraid, they will often look to you for comfort. You should give it to them! Cuddles, scratches, toys, soothing voices, a brush, even smiles will all go a long way to reducing fear until the scary event is over. Over time, you may find it even reduces the fear response. Try to avoid the fear – if you know something scary is coming, such as a thunderstorm, fireworks display, a dog visiting, and so on, make changes beforehand so it is less scary. Use sound dampening curtains, or have the radio or TV on; make sure someone is in to comfort your pet when they are afraid; create a warm nest for them to hide in.

You can slowly desensitise pets by exposing them to small amounts of whatever they fear, while at the same time offering nice things like comfort, toys or food – this is desensitisation, and as we said above, should never be done suddenly or all at once. Take it very slow, and be prepared to move a step back and start again should they be too afraid. The advice of your vet or a pet behaviourist may be useful here. Finally, while we’re on the topic, vets may be able to offer therapeutic treatments or reduce anxiety and fear in pets, or recommend specialist help. You’re always welcome to pop in and have a chat with us about your fearful pets, where more advice can be given.

 

Closing Thoughts

Fear is a strange thing: biologically it is useful, emotionally it is horrible, and practically it is hard to overcome.

Make sure you are not inadvertently increasing fearful behaviour in your pets – no one wants their pet to be more afraid, so have a think the next time they show fear if there is anything you shouldn’t be doing. After this, you can start to think about what you should be doing, and hopefully you will be on your way to a happy, fear-free pet!

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