Being the best for your dog.

Should you comfort your dog when he’s afraid?

I read this article over on Mother Nature News a week ago and pondered about the validity of the evidence. My ponderings didn’t result in me coming to a firm conclusion either way.

Wondered what you thought?

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Should you comfort your dog when he’s afraid?

Experts disagree on whether it’s a good idea to reassure a scared pet.

Mary Jo DiLonardo July 6, 2016 (Mary Jo DiLonardo Mary Jo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.)

 Some dog behaviorists believe you reward fearful behavior by trying to comfort a scared pup.
Some dog behaviorists believe you reward fearful behavior by trying to comfort a scared pup. (Photo: 279photo/Shutterstock)

Dogs frightened of thunderstorms or fireworks will often look to their humans for comfort, jumping in their laps or clinging to their legs trying desperately to find relief. But the experts are divided on whether you should try to comfort them. Some think that reassuring them when they’re scared rewards the fearful behavior. Others think it’s our job as pack leaders to give them the safety they need.

How do you decide what to do if your pup suffers from noise anxiety or noise phobia? To help you decide, here’s a look at what some canine behaviorists, trainers and vets suggest.

Don’t reward fearful behavior

When our pets are afraid, it’s natural for most people to treat them the way we would treat young children, by trying to comfort them, says Stanley Coren, Ph.D., author of several books including “How to Speak Dog.”

“With dogs, however, this is exactly the wrong thing to do,” Coren says in Psychology Today. “Petting a dog when he’s acting in a fearful manner actually serves as a reward for the behavior; it’s almost as if we’re telling the dog that being afraid in this situation is the right thing to do.”

Coren says comforting a dog that way actually makes the pet more likely to be afraid the next time.

Many canine behaviorists and vets advise not acknowledging your dog’s fear in any way.

“Do not attempt to reassure your dog when she is afraid,” advises The Humane Society of the United States. “This may only reinforce her fearful behavior. If you pet, soothe, or give treats to her when she’s behaving fearfully, she may interpret this as a reward for her fearful behavior. Instead, try to behave normally, as if you don’t notice her fearfulness.”

That doesn’t mean ignore your dog when he’s anxious because of thunderstorms, fireworks or for any other reason.

Dr. Daniel S. Mills, a veterinarian at the University of Lincoln in England and an expert on canine noise aversion, tells the New York Times that owners should “acknowledge the dog but not fuss over it. Then show that the environment is safe and not compatible with threat, by playing around and seeing if the dog wants to join you. But don’t force it. Let it make a choice.”

Give your dog the comfort he needs

If a dog comes to you for comfort, do you give it to him or ignore him? (Photo: Annette Shaff/Shutterstock)
If a dog comes to you for comfort, do you give it to him or ignore him? (Photo: Annette Shaff/Shutterstock)

It can be absolutely heartbreaking to watch a petrified pet who starts trembling and panting when loud noises start. For pet owners who can’t stand the idea of not trying to help, other experts say it’s totally fine to soothe them. After all, dogs look for safety with their packs and we are their packs.

“You can’t reinforce anxiety by comforting a dog,” Dr. Melissa Bain, an associate professor of clinical animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, tells the New York Times. “You won’t make the fear worse. Do what you need to do to help your dog.”

Dog trainer and author Victoria Stilwell, star of the TV series, “It’s Me or the Dog,” agrees it’s important that the owner be there to reassure the dog if the dog comes looking for comfort.

“Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, an owner’s comforting arm and presence can help a phobic dog to cope as long as the owner remains calm at all times,” Stillwell says.

Ignoring your dog when it’s scared is outdated advice, according to a patient handout from the Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Ignoring a fearful, panicky dog deprives him of whatever comfort and psychological support you can give him. It also leaves him without any information about what he should be doing instead,” according to UPenn. “If there is an activity your dog can’t get enough of, that is something to do during storms. This can include playing fetch, chase games, even cuddling and petting, or holding the dog firmly next to you if that comforts him.”

Do what your dog needs

If your dog finds comfort in hiding, you may just want to leave her alone. (Photo: NARUCHA KLINUDOM/Shutterstock)
If your dog finds comfort in hiding, you may just want to leave her alone. (Photo: NARUCHA KLINUDOM/Shutterstock)

With experts divided on what’s to do, it’s probably best to just listen to your dog. If he’s scared and has found a place to hide, that’s likely the comfort he needs and you can let him try to work it out. But if he comes looking for you to reassurance, you may just want to give it to him.

“If a dog seeks you out as a comfort force, I wouldn’t turn the dog away,” Atlanta-based internationally certified dog behavior consultant Lisa Matthews tells MNN. “If they went to distance themselves and find a corner or safe space, I wouldn’t go seek them out and say, ‘Oh my gosh, let me hold you!’ I would let them self soothe.”

Matthews says that although she understands the thinking that the behavior might be reinforced that way, she points out there’s no real science to back up either way of thinking.

“The jury is out on whether the dog would be reinforced by offering that condolence,” she says. “We have to realize an animal is in distress. Why in the world would you turn your back to an animal in distress?”

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One gathers from the ‘experts’ that there isn’t an overriding conclusion, “With experts divided on what’s to do …” then goes on to recommend that one should listen to your dog.

Whether it is your dog (s) or fellow humans listening carefully is an art. An art that pays off handsomely. Or in the words of that old saying (author unknown):

Always listen with the intent to understand;

Rather than with the intent to respond!

Then remind yourself how carefully our dogs listen to us at times.

So much to learn from these beautiful animals!

13 thoughts on “Being the best for your dog.

  1. I am afraid my instincts would kick in Paul and regardless of the Animal I would try to give it comfort if it was in need of reasurance. 🙂
    I would also give a few drops of rescue remedy to my cats on bonfire night as they were terrified of the loud bangs outside. this helped calm them down.

  2. This really is a delicate subject. When I got my present dog, my first in over 60 years, I read a lot about them, also watched a lot of TV including both Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell. I came to the conclusion that brief comforting worked best for both the dog and me. There is a powerful logic to the idea that giving them treats when they are frightened only reinforces that situation. I think the idea is to get the dog’s attention off the situation creating the fear.

  3. It depends on the animals reaction Bob hated fireworks. We quickly realized that he felt better indoors sitting close to one of us otherwise he ran riot around the garden. Ellie, a collie cross, reacts with anger if she fear s a bigger dog so our reaction to her was slightly different to all suggested, I took her to obedience classes and agility just to socialize and here she soon learnt that big didnt mean bad or nasty. So I agree listen and watch carefully for all cures are not the same.

    1. Maria, I think we are all unanimous that listening to our dogs and knowing each of them as best as possible is as good as it gets. Thank you for your lovely reply.

  4. Great post Paul. I’m with Sue , I could not comfort if a dog came to me for reassurance.
    Another factor is also the state of mind of the owner. If the owner is afraid and cuddles the dog, they are likely to transmit more fear to them.
    If the owner is a calm and reassuring presence, then it must do good.
    I wouldn’t give them treats … that really does train them!!

    1. Val, you are just proving the validity of my previous reply; that we are unanimous if the way we know and love our dogs. Thank you, Val. Always a pleasure hearing from you.

  5. A person would have to be a hard hearted Hannah not to comfort their pet in times of fright or anxiety. Just like a child that looks to a parent this is what a scared pet will do. I don’t think it reinforces anything. Great article.

  6. I agree with Dr. Bain. I cannot imagine leaving our dogs to quake and quiver while fireworks shred their nerves. They’re not fearful dogs, on balance. But when they are afraid, we do and will always comfort them! aloha, Paul.

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