Fear: Can You Reinfoce It or Can’t You?

Over the fourth of July weekend my Facebook page was blown up with memes and posts about it being okay for you to pet, coo at and hold your scared dog during the fireworks. It is becoming a popular notion that you can not reinforce fear because it is an emotion and emotions can not be reinforced.

On one hand you still have traditional type dog trainers advising their clients to not touch, talk to or even look at their dogs while they are scared. Some have even gone so far as to say that we should be forcing our dogs into terrifying situations to “get them over it”.

On the other hand we have the more new aged dog trainers telling us that we absolutely can not reinforce emotions, including fear so go ahead and comfort your dog.

While NO,  I would absolutely not drag my dog out into the middle of a storm or a firework display in the name of teaching them to get over it but I am going to step in here and play a bit of devil’s advocate.

I believe you can, indeed, reinforce emotions because you see, emotions are not singular events that take place all by themselves, no, rather emotions are ALWAYS paired with behaviors and since behaviors can be reinforced one could conclude then, that emotions can be reinforced.

To further strengthen my case:

In Linda Case’s book Beware The Straw Man she mentions a study done where people in two different groups read a story. Both groups had to hold a pencil in their mouths while they read it. The first group held the pencil in their teeth forcing a smile and the second group held the pencil in their pressed lips forcing a frown.

The first group, with the forced smiles felt better or more positively about the story while the second group, with the forced frowns felt more negatively about the story, drawing the conclusion that your behavior can actually alter or impact your feelings or emotions. Change the behavior you change the emotion!

This reminds me of a communications class I took some years back where we discussed complaining. The more someone complains, the more likely they are to continue having complaints. Complaining can get further validated or reinforced if you will, if people around them offer forms of agreeance such as active listening, participation in the complaint or even something as subtle as nodding. Complaining is the behavior associated with different emotions such as, frustration, depression, agitation and so on; so while no the emotion itself is not being reinforced, the behavior associated with it is. This becomes a vicious cycle where the complainer relieves their stress from their emotional state by complaining but the complaining actually keeps them in that emotional state.

Reinforcement means to increase or to make stronger. Many behaviors are self reinforcing, meaning they don’t need external approval for the behavior to continue, so we don’t even have to physically do anything reinforcing, simply allowing a dog to continue being afraid is reinforcing enough.  The dog continues to practice being afraid. If we can get the dog to produce confident behaviors in the face of scary stimulus, we could then change their emotions about the stimulus.

Lets also not forget that fear does not only present in the form of trembling, hiding or drooling but can also present as aggression. In fact MOST aggression stems from a place of fear. Should we be stroking, petting and cooing our dogs when they are a full on barking, lunging, foaming at the mouth mess because the aggression is the behavior that presented during a moment of fear? NO! As trainers we would be removing the dog from that high level of intensity and working the dog back where they could once again handle the distraction and focus on us but we would not be petting, cooing or treating in the dog’s heightened state of agitation or frustration, so why in the world is it okay when the dog is trembling and hiding? It’s behaviors associated with emotion all the same.

Now don’t misunderstand I am not saying that we should be dragging our dogs out in the middle of it, right in the moment of it’s highest intensity and make our dogs “get over it”. Not at all, a proper desensitization process can be a slow one. I am not even saying hiding is a bad thing, especially when we are talking about an event that only happens once a year, but lets acknowledge that it is indeed being reinforced in one way or another. So until you change your dog’s mind about the scary stimulus, you are reinforcing (making stronger) the behaviors associated with fear, thus strengthening the fear.


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