I was talking to a new client whose dog is afraid of thunderstorms and fireworks. She said when the thunder started her dog would crawl into her lap trembling. A previous dog trainer told her that she should not comfort her dog because it could reinforce the dog’s fear.
My first thought: Where does this myth about reinforcing fear come from?
As a behaviorist I know that fear is an emotional response, not a behavior. Animals and people feel afraid when they perceive they are in danger. With dogs, the feeling of fear can be identified through their body language. Dogs can show fear by tucking their tails, cowering down, licking their lips when there’s no food around, yawning, trembling, refusing to take food when they normally would.
Dog trainers are often familiar with operant conditioning, a learning principle, and most trainers will reinforce desirable behaviors like sitting to greet people. When a dog places his rear on the ground, a dog trainer will reinforce that behavior as part of teaching the dog to sit when asked.
As I noted, fear is not a behavior. It is an emotional response. Therefore the fear itself cannot be reinforced. The analogy I often use with clients is to imagine a situation in which they were afraid. Then I ask them to imagine how they would feel if someone they loved and trusted came over and held their hand or gave them a hug. Would they feel more afraid? Most of us can imagine we would not feel more fear in this situation. Most of us would actually feel less fear and some comfort or relief. The same is true for dogs.
I learned this dog had been adopted when he was approximately six months old. The owner noticed the dog’s fearfulness around thunderstorms almost immediately. The dog would seek out my client and climb in her lap. Because this client had previously been told not to reinforce her dog’s desire for comfort she would push her dog away, sometimes even scold him and walk away from him. He would sometimes then go hide under a bed or in the bathroom.
We’ve had quite a few thunderstorms this past spring and early summer so we had an opportunity to test out how her dog would respond if she tried providing comfort for him. At the next thunderstorm when he came looking for her, she invited him up on the couch to sit next to her. He leaned into her and she just put her hand on his back and applied steady, firm petting along his back and sides. She also covered him with a blanket so he couldn’t see the lightning. She happily reported that within 15 to 20 minutes he had stopped trembling and was sleeping on her lap. He still appeared a bit tense and was startled when there was loud thunder. But it was the most relaxed she had seen him during a thunderstorm.
Some things you can try if your dog becomes anxious during thunderstorms or fireworks.
Plan ahead so your dog does not have to go outside for a potty break during a heavy thunderstorm or a fireworks display. Leave your dog at home with a trusted adult if you want to enjoy fireworks yourself.
Encourage your dog to go to a soundproof, dark area such as a basement, closet or bathroom. Close the curtains and shades or cover your dog’s crate. Make this a soothing place with calming music (classical, reggae or soft rock) or white noise like a fan, a fountain or a white noise machine.
You can help by making that location even more soothing to your dog by providing a dog appeasing pheromone, lavender scent, a favorite toy or chew.
If you can’t create a dark space in your home, try turning up all the lights so the contrast between inside and outside is not so great. It will be more difficult for your dog to see the fireworks and lightning if lights are on in the house.
During fireworks or lightning, close the curtains, block the windows and keep the room brightly lit to avoid the high contrast with the lights outside. Or snuggle with your dog under a blanket to protect her from the flashing lights outside.
Provide comfort. If your dog wants to snuggle up next to you or sit in your lap, she is looking for comfort. Provide gentle, firm, slow petting for your dog or just let your dog sit with you. Remember to breathe and keep yourself relaxed and calm. You WILL NOT REINFORCE FEAR.
Actions to avoid:
Never punish your dog for having accidents indoors or damaging property during noise events. It makes your dog even more afraid of the noise. And remember, dogs are acting out of fear, not misbehaving.
Avoid pulling your dog out of a hiding place. Some dogs are so frightened this will lead to a bite. Instead follow the suggestions above to make the space calming or gently coax your dog if it's not a safe hiding space.