RSPCA-thunderstorm-loud-noises

 

We see the following piece of advice over and over, and often it comes from “old school” dog trainers who really need to educate themselves in the difference between learned behavior and an emotional response.

not cuddle

The basic flaw in statements like this is the implication that by “cuddling your dog” when s/he is anxious you are “rewarding” anxious behavior, and the dog will learn to repeat it so that s/he can get more cuddles.  By following this kind of advice, we actually do more damage to our dog’s behavior and emotional health.

Mammals all have the same kind of brain.  The human species has the most developed neocortex, the “executive” part of the brain.  The limbic system is the seat of emotions in ALL brains.  It’s the part responsible for triggering “fight or flight” when threatened.

brain

 

Think about what happens to you if you are truly frightened . . . the kind of terror that threatens your life, and the drive to survive supersedes all other drives.  When your life depends on it, you will either “run for your life” or fight for it.   If you’re on a plane hijacked by terrorists, you have the same “fight or flight” instinct associated with fear.  The only reason you don’t flee to the first exit and open the door to get out is that the “executive part” of the brain is telling you that at 30,000 feet you’ll die anyway.

Other mammals, including dogs, don’t have that luxury of “thinking through” a life-threatening situation, and for many of them, fireworks and thunder are perceived as “life-threatening.”    My border collie, Meggie,  knows when a thunderstorm is in the next county.  I don’t hear anything, but she does or feels something.

Because of our “overdeveloped neocortex”, we humans have learned how to manipulate situations to our advantage . . . we have learned how to “fake” emotions.  Not so with dogs . . . their emotions are raw and pure.  If a dog is frightened, then the fear is real.

So what is the best strategy to allay your dog’s fears?  You do what makes the dog “feel” better and for most of them, it’s being close to or being held by their human.  Science has proven that pain in a dog is alleviated when the dog is touched or is simply in the presence of their human.  My dogs get cuddles whenever they want or think they need it, and I feel no guilt or shame about it.

cuddling

 

Those who advocate “not giving in to a dog’s anxiety” are also forgetting the dog’s incredible ability to “backchain” . . . associating previous stimuli with an outcome.  For example, if you keep your treats in a particular cabinet and you have to move the coffeemaker out of the way to get to them,  every time you move the coffeemaker, the dog associates it with getting a treat.  That’s “backchaining.”

Consider these two trajectories.

  1. Thunder/fireworks triggers fear.
  2. Dog is stressed (fight or flight kicks in)
  3. Owner ignores the behavior (negative reinforcement —you’re taking something good (your attention) away from your dog for a “behavior” that is NOT in his control –fear is an EMOTIONAL RESPONSE)
  4. Dog is more agitated and owner crates dog to prevent him from “fleeing”
  5. Dog experiences NO relief from fear and additional stress, especially when owner moves crate to the garage because the dog is trying to break out of the crate.

So, via “backchaining”,  thunder immediately triggers NO RELIEF FROM FEAR AND INCREASED ANXIETY AND REMOVAL FROM THE OWNER.  So following the “fallacious advice” actually makes the fear worse over time and more quickly triggered as well as a higher level of anxiety.

Here is a much better alternative that is in sync with brain biology.

  1. Thunder/fireworks triggers fear.
  2. Dog is stressed (fight or flight kicks in)
  3. Owner cuddles with dog to prevent fleeing.
  4. Owner redirects attention to favorite game and or treats.
  5. Owner repeats 3 and 4 until dog feels that threat is gone.
  6. Ends session (when dog is calm and relaxed) with high level rewards.

For the dog, this is what backchaining results in:   Thunder leads to high-level rewards.

Backchaining takes time and is a result of a routine, and routines are very comforting for dogs.  This is the method I use for all my dogs who have any kind of fear issue.  None of them have ever tried to “flee” because they get what they need from me and feel safe and secure at home.

So the next time your dog is frightened, give yourself permission to cuddle as much as you want.  It’s good for all of us, whether we’re experiencing fear or not, and it’s based on scientific fact.

 

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