I have read a lot of books and articles about training, some of them from very famous trainers, that base their training on the idea that you can intensify fear, aggression, and other “negative” emotions in dogs by rewarding them with attention and treats. In order to avoid feeding these emotions and the related behaviors, you must ignore or correct your dog. If you give them positive attention at this time, you’re preventing them from developing independence and an ability to confidently navigate the world. So how does that work, and what does science have to say about it?
Behavior science doesn’t like this idea very much, and neither do I. I don’t particularly want my dogs to be too independent when they’re afraid, which is the number one trigger for aggression. If I’ve rewarded them for coming back to me when they’re hurt or afraid, that’s what they’re most likely to do if a person, dog, object, or animal is making them nervous. I’m very unlikely to have to deal with a fight at the dog park because my dogs didn’t know how to handle another dog being rude. I expect them to play by human rules, and that means it’s my job to make good choices and provide them an out if there is a bully on the playground. Coming to hide between my legs is always rewarded, whether I decide to try to push them to become more comfortable with the Big Scary Thing, or if I decide to get us out of there. It’s very common for dogs to learn not to retreat, because when they initially try, it doesn’t work. That is a recipe for a bite incident. After trying to retreat so many times, and having it fail, these dogs always feel cornered when they’re afraid. They’re going to do what works, and often that’s aggression.
That doesn’t mean that my dogs are afraid of everything and aren’t able to make progress with things that previously made them anxious. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be able to take Bramble out of the house. As usual, behavior science has the answer for us in the form of counter conditioning. By pairing positive experiences with scary things, you can eliminate those negative feelings and create positive associations. You change the dog’s behavior by changing his emotional state. Trainer Kathy Sdao eventually had to teach her former-death-row dog, Nick, to calm the friendliness down around men after spending months counter conditioning him with goodies every time a man showed up. This was a dog that had failed out of an inmate training program and was going to be euthanized because of fear and aggression issues. The clever application of food and affection have since turned him into a stranger-snuggling machine.
There are reasons that these ideas about intensifying fear show up. Sometimes people both coddle the dog and let the fearful behavior always work. If fearful behavior always gets them out of an uncomfortable situation, they’re going to use it. It’s up to the owner to decide when fears need to be challenged, and when it’s perfectly reasonable to be afraid. In other cases, dogs don’t want lots of hugs and kisses and close, human-style, physical affection when they’re afraid. The owner needs to look at the dog’s body language and behavior to know if they’re making the dog feel crowded and actually intensifying the dog’s fear. For instance, I see people holding frightened dogs upside down like babies. To us, it seems calming, but the dog has his belly exposed and is tightly restrained when he feels like he might need to run at any moment. “Positive” things can intensify fear and aggression if they’re not actually being interpreted as positive by the dog. Finally, it is possible to reward a behavior that is usually connected with fear or aggressive behavior. Ideally, when you’re counter conditioning, you treat the dog when the trigger is just far enough away that they’re nervous but not quite reacting to it. If they’re displaying a big behavior, such as barking or growling, you might reward that behavior, too. We’ve got that problem with Bramble, who used to cower and bark when he saw other dogs. It wasn’t practical to get him far enough away not to react, so now we’ve got an excited, playful barker on our hands. It’s obnoxious, but he’s much better able to learn when he’s not terrified and we’re working on it. The character of the behavior will change, so you can see that the fear is going away, and you can work on the secondary behavior separately.
There are a million videos and tutorials on counter conditioning (like here or here or here), so I won’t reinvent the wheel, but I will throw in a few helpful pointers. The treat, game, or cuddle you’re using to create a positive association must be strong enough to match the situation. For something really scary, you might need to use small amounts of fast food, or other moist, smelly, delicious treats. For something that just makes your dog a little nervous on his walk, the excitement of being out of the house might be enough to get past fear of it. If your dog is too afraid or worked up to accept the food, you’re too close to his trigger and you need to back off and try again later. If your dog is afraid of something common, you’ve got to have sharp eyes and be quick on the draw. I suggest using a treat pouch, so you can get food into your dog’s mouth before he can really begin to react. As with most parts of dog training, good timing is important. Training happens all the time, and if he’s rewarded each time he sees something, not just during sessions, he’ll learn much faster.
Counter conditioning is an invaluable tool to have in your toolbox because every dog is afraid of something. Knowing what to do ahead of time can keep you from intensifying your dog’s fear by mistake and have you prepped to immediately start training. Giving medications, going to the groomers, having people over, and all sorts of situations that can be difficult become easy with the right information and skills. Living with a fearful or aggressive dog can be exhausting, frustrating, and miserable, but I’m happy to report that progress can be made.