Last Spring I wrote this post about how you can’t reinforce fear.
I wanted to revisit the topic today, though, because I still see this idea everywhere. Also, a conversation I had yesterday on Twitter with a blog-less reader made me want to add a few thoughts to my original post.
“Don’t give the dog a cookie while she’s scared! You’ll make her worse!”
Reinforcement increases behavior. Fear is not a behavior; it is an emotion. We don’t choose to have or not have our emotions, and dogs don’t have our ability to talk themselves out of their feelings. Technically, you could reinforce a fear-based behavior, like cowering, but that assumes a level of active awareness on the dog’s part that I personally haven’t seen. Could you exactly replicate the way you jump when someone slams a door behind you?
One of the reasons that the “reinforcing fear” myth is so pervasive is that there is a distantly related scientific truth. You will, absolutely and without a doubt, have the best results from counterconditioning/desensitization if the dog is what behavioral scientists call “under threshold.” That is, the ideal time to deliver your reward is to do it before the dog starts reacting to something. So, yes, once your dog is already cowering or barking, you’re behind the curve. In a perfect world, you would deliver every reward while the dog is calm or happy.
Let’s get this clear, though:
The absolutely worst thing you can do for a fearful dog is to do nothing.
So, you make a timing mistake. Your dog sees or hears something that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you have a situation like thunder phobia where there is no “milder version” or “greater distance” to work with. If you believe that you will reinforce fear by delivering a cookie, petting, praise, or even by getting the dog out of the situation, your dog’s behavior will deteriorate. This is science.
Once your dog is reacting fearfully, he is over threshold. Not only is being over threshold bad for your dog physiologically, it will sensitize your dog to future encounters. His threshold for future fear reactions will lower. Sensitization and the lowering of thresholds is bad enough for problems like leash reactivity, but for conditions like separation anxiety or thunder phobia it can be disastrous. For any fear, once that threshold gets low enough, your only choice will be to medicate, because it is no longer possible for your dog to be safely counter-conditioned otherwise.
Now that your dog is over threshold, you have two choices: you can either do nothing, because it “reinforces fear” (bad idea), or you can deliver an admittedly sub-optimal reward. What your poorly-timed cookie/praise/petting/escape will get you is the chance that your dog will go back under that threshold. You may or may not get long-term learning out of it (whatever the books say, counter conditioning in the real world is hard, imprecise work), but at the very least you are stopping the damage.
Your frightened dog is not making a choice that you can validate or (heaven help me) punish. You are helping your dog–a creature who completely depends on you–handle a bad situation, whether he’s coping in an ideal way or not.