I need to warn you, this post gets a bit nerdy and technical. If you’re not the nerdy and technical type, go straight to the conclusion.
Depending on who you ask, you get a vastly different answer to the question of whether it’s a good idea to pet a frightened dog (or other animal with whom you have an established relationship and that enjoys your touch) during noisy events.
In the scientific literature, the overwhelming majority of articles (if not all…?) recommend not petting, meaning that petting fearful dogs inadvertently reinforces the anxious behaviour.
Still, in the dog training community, many professional dog trainers do recommend petting, and it has been argued that “petting doesn’t reinforce fear, it reduces it”.
So which is it? Could both sides have a point?
Does petting reinforce fear? For starters, the process of reinforcement occurs during operant learning. In operant learning, animals learn that certain behaviours have desired outcomes, as they result in something the animal wants. The animal performs a behaviour, receives reinforcement, repeats the behaviour in order to get some more goodies.
For example, the dog sits, gets petted, sits some more. For a cuddle-seeking animal, petting is a positive reinforcer that leads to more behaviour (in this case, sitting) and a corresponding feel-good emotion: a positive feedback loop. The animal continues offering sits to get more attention and remain in that happy mood, at least until something more interesting happens.
What about fear? We know animals don’t like being fearful, but even behaviours that animals don’t appreciate may be reinforced if the reinforcer is valuable enough. So, the fear-reinforced-by-petting argument goes: the animal acts fearful, gets petted and then acts even more fearful in order to get petted some more. It is assumed that through positive reinforcement (adding something the animal enjoys), fearful behaviour will increase. And presumably, the accompanying emotion too. No distinction is usually made between observable behaviour and corresponding emotional state.
However, fear is not comparable to behaviour such as sitting, coming when called or giving a high five. Fear is an emotional state, and one that has immense survival value. Fear leads to predictable observable behavioural reactions such as freezing, fleeing or (if cornered), fighting. In other words, many behaviours associated with the emotion fear serve to reduce that emotional state, by removing the frightening stimulus. This, by the way, is negative reinforcement (removing something the animal dislikes). For a frightened animal, hiding reduces the impact of the negative reinforcer: a negative feedback loop that reduces fear. So the observable behaviours may be reinforced, but the corresponding emotion is not.
So, it’s hard to imagine that you could positively reinforce the emotion of fear and the associated observable behaviours, such as hiding, since they work in a negative feedback loop. Sitting produces treats when you’re hungry through positive reinforcement, and excitement increases. In contrast, hiding eliminates aversive stimuli when you’re fearful by negative reinforcement, and fear is reduced.
Frightening stimuli increase fear. Many fearful behaviours serve to decrease fear through negative reinforcement: an outcome the animal enjoys. Assuming petting is something else that the animal enjoys, it should have the same effect as hiding: to reduce fear.
So, the argument that petting-reinforces-fear is just plain incorrect since fear-related behaviours are governed by negative reinforcement that serves to remove the aversive stimulus, reducing the underlying emotion through a negative feedback loop. Once fear has diminished beyond a certain level, the animal will stop hiding.
Hiding during a thunderstorm is negatively reinforced since it reduces fear. Likewise, soliciting petting from the owner is negatively reinforced since it reduces fear. Yes, your dog will seek you out to ask for comfort, just as he will attempt to hide, since both behaviours work to reduce fear!
So, many dog trainers will pet their frightened dog to good effect. However, they may be hesitant to recommend this procedure to someone who’s not so used to reading their dog and changing their own behaviour.
In my opinion, the people that warn that petting could make fear worse are not wrong, they just use the wrong terminology. Petting may, unfortunately, lead to increased fear or more suffering; just not through the process of reinforcement.
I see no less than three potential mechanisms why this might occur:
- The animal is really frightened, seeks attention and gets petting, which under normal conditions reduces arousal and feels really nice. But if the animal is too fearful, it could be that this effect is not achieved and high arousal is maintained. If petting no longer “works”, the animal is not being reinforced.
What happens when previously reinforced behaviour no longer works? Extinction bursts, that’s what. It is not uncommon that frightened dogs start climbing and pawing their owners, getting even more aroused when they get petted – perhaps because they’re not getting the relaxation they’ve learned to expect when not frightened.
So, hypothetically, at some arousal threshold, petting will no longer reduce arousal, and this may cause an extinction burst and increased arousal in frightened animals. To reduce this risk, block out offensive stimuli such as sounds and sights by providing a good hiding place. Theoretically this might keep the arousal level below the threshold so that petting “works”.
- The animal is really frightened and has become sensitized to other stimuli. Sensitization has multimodal effects, meaning that the other senses tend to become sensitized too, so touch may become aversive. And even though the animal may not become more fearful, petting may add another unwanted stimulus on top of everything else, and increase suffering. To reduce the risk of sensitization, block out the aversive stimuli.
- Through respondent conditioning, fear may increase – or decrease. Suppose that after one loud sound, you pet the animal. The animal thus learns that awful sounds are followed by petting, and through counterconditioning, the sounds become less aversive. Noise becomes a predictor of petting, something to look forward to.
However, what happens if there is a new sound immediately after petting occurred? Then it’s hard to predict which type of respondent conditioning will occur. If you’re lucky, counterconditioning to noise occurs (noise predicting petting). If you’re unlucky, conditioning occurs to petting (petting predicting noise).
When petting becomes a predictor of aversive things, the animal may learn to fear petting. Not through operant conditioning and reinforcement, but through respondent conditioning.
Incidentally, with the same reasoning, animals may learn to fear wonderful treats, too.
During a fireworks display, there’s typically more or less continuous sound, whereas during thunderstorms, annoying visual and auditory stimuli are less frequent. I would thus expect that the risk of inadvertent respondent conditioning resulting in petting increasing fear would be higher during fireworks than during thunderstorms (unless the animal is fearful of the changes in barometric pressure or electrical discharges which may be a lot more continuous).
Do you agree – do dogs respond better to petting during thunder than fireworks? What’s your experience? Let us know in the comments’ section!
I would also expect that the intensity of the stimuli would affect the outcome of frequent-noises-interspersed-with-petting. If noise is loud, it may overshadow petting so that the animal doesn’t even notice that it’s being petted (unless it’s sensitized, which you’ll notice). If noise is soft, petting may overshadow the noise so that the animal doesn’t even notice that there is a storm outside… and if you’re using treats, make sure that they’re absolutely fabulous so that treats overshadow noise rather than the other way around.
A further complication of this picture is that the owner may be calmed by petting the dog – and that may have a huge influence on the animal!
Be cautious of petting a frightened dog during a noisy event (especially fireworks). It may make both of you feel better, but pay attention to the animal. Stop if you see that petting makes things worse (which could occur through three different mechanisms). Above all, block the annoying stimuli as best you can: allow the animal to hide in a sound-proof place. If you’re giving treats after each noise, make sure they’re superbly yummy.
BTW, here’s everything else you need to know about how to reduce fear of noise in dogs during the acute phase, the off-season phase, as well as the preventive phase. Want it as an E-book?