Recently at the dog park, I observed a father and his daughter playing with a young black lab mix, we’ll call him “Boomer”.   It was a nice cloudy and cool afternoon, and some storm clouds were building to the east.  Although the thunder was not yet audible to us humans, Boomer was already showing signs of distress.  He knew what was coming thanks to his acute sense of hearing or because he felt the change in barometric pressure or both.  His interest in the Frisbee was waning quickly, his panting was more elevated, lots of tongue flicking and his tail was dropping lower between his legs.  When he refused to chase the Frisbee and started pacing nervously, the girl, about 12 years old, called to him and held out a treat. He came over to her quickly, she hugged him and offered him the treat which he didn’t take. Immediately the father called out to her to not do that.  “You’re teaching him to be afraid.”

I don’t usually get overly concerned about owners with tendencies toward anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities to animals).  But here was a case where a dog was in dire straits with out of control fear and an owner who decided that the dog was somehow manipulating the situation just to get a feel good reward.  It’s also a tad narcissistic of the owner to conclude that every behavior, action or feeling on the dog’s part has something to do with the owner.

Fear is an emotional state, a product of the limbic system, or the mammalian brain, which all mammals, including we humans, share.  Without fear, a species would not survive. Where would you be if you had no “fear” of walking across the interstate without looking left or right?  Flat as a pancake, I would think.   Fear is tied in to the survival instinct and serves a necessary purpose.  In lab experiments where mice had damaged amygdalas (part of the limbic), the survival rate was zilch because the mice had lost the ability to sense danger which triggers the emotion of fear.

If we’re on a plane that is hijacked by a group of terrorists, we will experience fear –the reaction to or anticipation of something extremely aversive or dangerous. This is a biological signal that is sent from our limbic/mammalian brain.  If, during this hijacking, I hand you a piece of chocolate or a $100 bill, will this cause you to be more afraid of a terrorist hijacking next time (provided we survive this time) because I “rewarded” you with a treat? Or will eating a piece of chocolate make you less afraid in this immediate moment?  Like Boomer, your state of fear will be so great that you won’t be able to eat it.  The only thing that will assuage your fear is for the danger to be removed from you, or you from the danger, as in a rescue by the Navy Seals.

Boomer is afraid of thunder . . . his brain senses it as some kind of aversion or danger.  He is in the emotional state of fear.  You can’t TEACH a dog to make his or her emotional state better or worse with rewards or consequences. Unlike humans, dogs do not have the highly developed neocortex to “fake” an emotion.  Using rewards reinforces the immediate behavior (earlier if you understand how to mark a behavior.)  When the girl called Boomer over to her and he came to her, the treat she offered was reinforcing his “coming to her” . . . and my philosophy is that a recall is so important that it should be consistently reinforced.

So what should have been the next steps with Boomer?

  1.  Get him to a safe place where he can’t bolt.  Fear leads to “fight or flight,”  which explains why shelters are full of dogs after July 4th.  The dad admitted that they thought they could “teach” the fear of thunder out of him because he normally likes playing Frisbee.  So they decided to come to the park when they knew full well that there would be a thunderstorm. Using “flooding” like this seldom works and can backfire.
  2. Every dog has a special place (or they should be allowed to have one if they don’t) in the home where they feel safe and secure.  For Boomer, it was under the girl’s desk.  I suggested that he have free access to that area, especially if he begins to exhibit signs of fear.
  3. Because Boomer seemed to be calmer and comforted by the girl holding him, I suggested getting him used to a “thundershirt”, or any kind of snug fitting shirt or coat.
  4. Holding and petting the dog in times of stress and/or fear has a tremendous calming and soothing effect.  That was certainly clear with Boomer.

Unlike humans, our dogs do NOT feign specific emotions to elicit some kind of reward or favor from us.  It’s about time that we get over the idea that we are “gods” to our dogs. It’s okay for the dog to believe that . . . it’s not so good if we start believing it and acting as such. Dogs have lives and feelings that don’t always revolve around us, and we need to allow them this.



If you want to know more about how your dog’s brain works, read “For the Love of a Dog”.  Now available in a Kindle version.

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