Does Soothing Your Dog "Reward Fear"?

It’s often said that when we comfort a frightened dog, we’re rewarding fear. Learn whether that’s true, and how best to help out your worried, startled, or frightened dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #215

You may have heard the advice that you shouldn’t try to emotionally comfort your dog. The idea is that if your dog is frightened during a thunderstorm or startled by a car backfiring, you’re rewarding the fear if you pet Dogalini or talk to her soothingly.  Just recently a client described to me how her dog barks when awakened by a loud noise at night. When she speaks to her dog quietly, he settles down right away. Yet my client was sure she was doing the wrong thing.

Yes, it’s debunking time!.

What Happens When You Comfort Your Scared Dog?

First, let’s go to our happy place of logical reasoning. Suppose your Dogalini is scared. You can tell, because she’s trembling and cowering or trying to hide behind you, and her tail is tucked between her legs. And suppose that when you pick her up, she relaxes and starts looking bright-eyed and interested again. Or you stroke her back, scratch her throat, and speak to her in a soft, warm voice. She stops trembling, her tail comes out from between her legs, and she sits and cocks her head to look at whatever frightened her. Assuming that Scary Thing doesn’t pick this moment to jump up and yell “Boo!” would you really expect Dogalini to be more afraid the next time she and it cross paths?

Most dogs are sensitive to human tones of voice, so if your dog appears somewhat worried, you may be able to dial back her anxiety by speaking to her in a soft, slow, warm, upbeat tone. 

I wouldn’t! What I might expect instead is that next time something scares Dogalini, she’s more likely to look to you for comfort – because that worked for her. She was scared, you soothed her, and her fear was eased. What’s being rewarded isn’t “fear,” it’s the behavior of looking for comfort when frightened. If that’s a bad thing, my tiny little brain can’t figure out why.

When “Comforting” Doesn’t Really Comfort

But now think about a different scenario. Your scared dog huddles next to you, so you take her in your arms and she freezes up. Or maybe she wiggles frantically until you put her down again. Clearly, your dog doesn’t take comfort from being held. If you pick her up and try to cuddle her every time she’s frightened, then, yes, it’s conceivable that whatever scares her will become scarier to her over time.  

So have you “rewarded fear”?


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).