I keep revisiting the same conversation with people. That is, that you can’t reinforce fear by comforting a dog.
Yes, dogs seek to repeat rewarding behavior. You give them a cookie for sitting, and you increase the likelihood that they will sit again.
However, sitting is not an aversive event for the dog. No cookie or hug that you can give is “worth” panicking over a thunderstorm or cowering in terror from a stranger. Would you have a panic attack on purpose, just because people hug you when it’s over? Could you have a real panic attack on purpose, even if someone offered you a million dollars? And you’re a human; we have infinitely more rational control of our emotions than dogs do.
But don’t just take my word for it:
Possibly my new favorite dog video:
Also, Patricia McConnell, Part 1 and Part 2. This third article contains the very important reminder that “The one way you can make a fearful dog worse…is by becoming scared yourself.”
My initial introduction to that video clip came from here, with an accompanying article. Courtesy of Debbie Jacobs’s wonderful Fearful Dogs Blog .
The takeaway from these articles is that the only way you are going to increase a dog’s fear by becoming involved is when your own response is negative. And I don’t just mean punishing the dog for being afraid; if your “comfort” for a scared dog helps the dog to feel like you are equally scared or upset, you will feed his feelings of fear. That isn’t because saying “Poor baby!” is reinforcing. It’s because saying “Poor Baby!” with the attitude you only use when something is wrong emphasizes the “fact” that something is wrong.