There are many ways that owners encourage bad or unwanted behaviour with their dogs without realising it, including reinforcing anxiety in their dogs as well many other common dog behaviours.
Known as Inadvertent Reinforcement, this is commonly seen when an owner is trying to stop a dog from jumping up on them or barking at the back door by pushing them down or yelling out to their dog ‘to be quiet’, for example. Whilst most owners think this is teaching the dog what NOT to do, it is in fact rewarding the dog for that behaviour by giving them what they actually want – our attention or touch. You can read more about that here.
I find that this also regularly occurs with owners reinforcing anxiety in their dogs, which can make solving this problem difficult. Often I only have to watch the owner’s own reactions or body language when a potential anxiety-causing situation occurs to see how and why the dog is being encouraged to act this way.
This applies to both fear-based aggression (dog-to-dog or dog-to-human aggression) and ‘events’ or loud noises that can frighten our dogs such as thunderstorms, fireworks, groups of children playing or approaching etc.
The way I see most owners encouraging their dog to continue their anxious reactions is by trying to soothe them, pick them up, or in the most simplest term – treat them like a baby in need of protection, and ‘rewarding’ them for the fearful behaviour.
We tend to think we are helping to calm them down and, whilst it might stop them barking or whimpering temporarily, what we have actually done is reinforce that reaction in them by indicating that they did indeed have something to be frightened of and that required our intervention and indicating that it must therefore indeed be a very scary situation.
The next time the same situation occurs then, it is no wonder that the dog displays that same behaviour, and most likely with more frequency and intensity in the future as they ‘know’ through your reactions that they should be scared and their anxious response was actually ‘rewarded’ with your patting and soothing. And so it continues…
Dealing with fear-based aggression requires specific knowledge on what to look out for and how to respond, so if your dog is showing aggression towards other dogs or people then I would recommend you take a read of this article, and then also seek the services of an appropriate and experienced trainer.
When dealing with anxiety in general or in response to events like fireworks or thunderstorms, there are a number of techniques and tools to help. Some tips on helping an anxious dog in general can be found here, whilst some specific tips for thunderstorms or fireworks can be found here.
However, even with the help of a trainer or by following much of the advice in our articles, if YOU aren’t prepared to change your own reactions to when your dog shows the first signs of anxiety then you are potentially fighting a losing battle.
It is up to us to be consistent, fair and competent leaders to our dogs, which means we do of course provide them with the comfort and support they require, but that we do not make the situation worse by reinforcing their fears.
An example of how we can avoid doing this is using a thunderstorm scenario. Dogs can often smell and hear the rumble of a storm coming long before we can so, if you know that one is coming and ideally before you start to see any behaviour change in your dog indicating stress or anxiety (becomes quiet, tail drops between legs, licking lips, looking around nervously etc.), then take them outside and play a fun game of ball or tug-of-war, or begin some obedience exercises with food rewards (whatever activity it is that they enjoy the most) so that they start to build a positive association with thunderstorms.
Act as normally as possible in these situations, no yelling at them to be quiet or toughen up, but likewise no soothing or babying of them to encourage their anxious behaviour. It’s about taking their attention away from it before their unwanted behaviour begins and creating that positive situation with the environment and noise.
Known as desensitisation, this process can be applied to treating many dog behaviours and reactions. However again, I would encourage you to seek the services of an experienced trainer to help should the problem be at a level that is causing you and your dog stress.
About the Author: Lara Shannon is co-Host of Pooches at Play and has completed a Certificate III in Dog Behaviour & Training with the National Dog Trainers Federation. Lara also runs her own dog walking, dog minding and dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area.