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

Well, where exactly is the reward? Being cuddled isn’t rewarding this dog for anything if she dislikes it. A better guess is that she’s learned to see scary things as a tip-off that icky cuddling is on the way, and now scary things worry her even more than they used to. Probably the best way to help this dog is to get her out of scary situations pronto.

Also, most dogs are sensitive to human tones of voice, so if she appears somewhat worried but hasn’t gone all the way over to “frightened,” you may be able to dial back her anxiety by speaking to her in a soft, slow, warm, upbeat tone. Remember that, as our social partners, dogs pick up strongly on our body language and tone of voice. I can’t say for sure that a worried dog who hears you sounding worried, too, experiences this as confirmation of his fears. But the speculation seems plausible. So keep your cool.

Dogs Who Are Afraid of Many Things

If your dog is frightened by many things, or if she seems to spend a lot of her waking hours looking stressed, it would be a good idea to work with a qualified behavior specialist. That person can develop a systematic plan for you to diminish specific fears. If your dog has many such fears, or if she seems anxious a lot of the time even when nothing specific is setting her off, then behavioral medications can really help improve her quality of life.

Comforting a Startled Dog

And now for my client whose dog barks when there’s a loud noise in the night. He’s a nervous little guy – Ollie the dog, I mean – and my client lives in a big apartment building with not the greatest soundproofing. Noise from the public corridor travels into her bedroom. Ollie’s sleeping; a noise startles him; my client hushes him gently. The usual result is that Ollie woofs softly one more time and then settles down.

Sure, it would be great if Ollie just slept through all the noise, or if he woke up but didn’t bark. But is my client teaching him to bark? Take a look at the sequence of events again. He and my client are both sleeping. There’s a loud noise. Ollie barks; she hushes him; he barks once more, softly; he stops barking. If my client’s gentle hushing rewarded Ollie for barking, wouldn’t you expect him to keep barking loudly, so as to get more gentle hushing rewards? I would. But instead, he quiets down. Honestly, I think this is as simple as “I’m startled; I bark; my guardian reassures me.”

We Can’t Explain Everything Dogs Do

Why does Ollie give that second, softer bark? I dunno! My client thought he might be testing her, which is a motivation people often attribute to dogs. Look, humans like to explain things, whether we have any pertinent evidence or not. Has lightning struck the tree near our house? Zeus must be angry with us, but restraining the full force of his wrath. I have approximately as much evidence for Ollie’s testing my client as I do for Zeus’s wrath.

What would he be testing, anyway? If I had to guess, I’d say Ollie might have a little perturbation still hanging around, and that the second soft woof vents it. The most important point here is that my client’s response to the first bark appears to reassure Ollie and quiet him down. She can’t control the occurrence of loud noises or wave a magic wand to turn Ollie into a phlegmatic dog. I think in settling him down quickly and calmly, she’s doing the best she can do.

So here’s your takeaway: If your dog is frightened or appears tense, feel free to help him out in the way that works best for him. Speak to him softly. Stroke his back or scratch him under the chin. Pick him up and cuddle him. Watch his body language closely to learn whether what you think and hope will be soothing really does help. And if it does, then go to your happy place of rational thinking, and remember you are not rewarding fear.

As always, you can write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out my huge collection of past episodes – I might already have answered yours! And visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.>


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).