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a fine line: petplan pet insurance discusses the difference between rewarding fear and creating positive associations

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan


There are some situations that just turn our pets into a bundle of nerves.  For my dog Katie, it was thunderstorms.  For others, it strangers, or fireworks, or fear of other animals.  When our pets are scared, anxious, and a trembling mess, it is natural for us to want to comfort them.  But in doing so, we might be creating more of a problem.  Today we’ll discuss the difference between rewarding fear and creating positive associations, and how you can use this to help your pet through a fear inducing event.

Fears and phobias can be the result of genetics, inadequate socialization, or they may be learned from an unpleasant experience your pet had in the past. Fears that have genetics or poor socialization as a cause can be quite stubborn to fix, and may never completely resolve.  Those that were acquired from a previous experience are a little easier to tackle.

Unfortunately, your immediate natural reaction when your pet is afraid is to console him.  You may give extra attention or affection, and you may offer treats or tell your pet “It’s ok.”  To your pet, you are actually reinforcing the fear behavior.  If you’re giving attention or treats, in your pet’s eyes, you’re rewarding fear.  And when you tell him “It’s ok,” he hears that it’s ok to be scared, when clearly what you mean to tell him is that he doesn’t need to be scared. 

Pets are very intuitive and can easily pick up on our own moods and fears, so while trying to combat your pet’s fears, try to remain calmly upbeat.  The way to conquer your pet’s fear is avoid rewarding their fear; instead, you want to create a positive association between the stimulus that causes fear and something your pet really loves.

What you use as a reward will vary from pet to pet.  Some pets are treat motivated, while others prefer a favorite toy.  Whatever you use, make sure it is something highly desirable to your pet.  And reserve the reward for use only during training exercises.  This makes it even more prized to your pet. 

The basis of creating positive associations is to only reward your pet when he is displaying appropriate behaviors. This is the key of positive training, because dogs will want to repeat the actions that are rewarded.  When behavior is not rewarded, they are less likely to continue it.  So, you will reward your dog when he is not fearful.  This can be a little difficult to achieve in a natural setting.  For instance, once a thunderstorm is occurring, you will be hard pressed to find a time when a thunderphobic dog is calm.

One option is to redirect your dog from his fear.  We’ve talked before about the use of the sit-stay command to settle your dog and make him feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations.  Dogs love having jobs, and to them, a sit-stay is like a job.  If your dog has mastered sit-stay, use it to your advantage.  Request a sit-stay when your dog is experiencing fear, and once he’s settled and calm, reward him.  Eventually, positively associating the fear inducing stimulus (in this case, thunder) with a terrifically tasty treat will cause your dog to feel happy or calm about things that previously caused him to feel fear.  Eventually.  This place will take time, repetition, and patience to achieve, especially when phobias are deep seated.

A quick note on punishment: it has NO place in behavior modification exercises for fearful or phobic pets.  Punishment will only increase anxieties.  If your pet is displaying behavior that is undesirable, ignoring it completely will be enough of a deterrent. 

If you feel like creating positive association is getting you and your pet nowhere, or if you can’t find a time during a fearful event that your pet is calm enough to reward, speak to your veterinarian about adding medications.  Benzodiazepines, like Xanax and Valium, and some antidepressants are particularly effective at relaxing your pet enough to use behavior modification effectively.

When dealing with your pet’s fears and phobias, don’t be part of the problem by reinforcing your pet’s behaviors.  When in doubt, the best course of action is probably to do nothing.  Ignoring your pet, though hard for us, is actually better for your pet than coddling him.  

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Chris AshtonCo-Founder and Co-CEO of Petplan Pet Insurance
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