Dealing with Fear: Q & A

Is it wrong to offer a food reward or to pet to a dog that is displaying fear?
If the dog is under threshold meaning the dog is not tipping over into an overt display of reacting, lunging, barking, growling etc… the dog is concerned but not upset… it can be useful in making a positive association to the dog. As long as the appearance of the scary thing predicts the food is coming then it is paired correctly. Where many people go wrong in this food for scary “things” is in the distance factor of the Counter Conditioning & Desensitization Protocol and the sequence. With the proper distance and the right sequence you can make great strides in getting a dog to like, love or at the very least tolerate something they once found scary.
Is this just reassuring the dog or reinforcing the unwanted behavior?

As long as the dog is not displaying the unwanted behavior such as the lunge, bark growl etc… Because the scary thing is far enough away for the dog to notice it but hold it together, you are not reinforcing the unwanted behavior. In fact if you can consistently get a dog to notice and not react and reward for the clam behavior you can get dramatic results in peeling back the dogs fear or excitement / frustration.

If the dog is, for example, afraid of a shiny trash can or an odd statue it happens upon during a walk, you can let the dog check it out at its own pace with jolly talk and food rewards for each step it takes towards the scary object. Even clicking or marking with a word each time the dog looks at it or takes a step, especially when the dog finally gets to the odd stationary object that is a good time to jackpot the dog with a huge handful of goodies. The upside to this scenario is the odd statues and shiny trash cans are still, where as other dogs and humans are usually moving or have some interactive aspect to their presence, making the dog more likely to react if you closed the distance by letting the dog check out a person or dog. It can be done with dogs and people but the criteria of the plan must be followed to the letter and the people in the equation must be appropriately instructed, and the other dog in the case of a fearful dog meeting a new dog must also be appropriate or as we say “bomb proof”.

If you reward after the dog has reacted then yes you would be rewarding for the unwanted behavior. i.e.: bark-bark-lunge-lunge-freak out, then reward, that is the sequence that rewards for the unwanted behavior.
What about the role of classical conditioning in treating fear?

Pavlov is always on your shoulder, so be aware of classical conditioning during all training, even straight up operant conditioning. The useful role of classical conditioning is to pair something amazing with the scary thing immediately after the scary thing appears. The caveat is that the scary thing must be small enough or far enough away to keep the dog under threshold, that is the desensitization aspect.
Think of a person who is afraid of spiders, if we show them a spider in a jar across the room and each time they see it they get $10.00, however each day we get closer and the money value goes up. Then we work up to one day the spider out of the jar and they get $1,000! It is possible that in time they may actually seek out spiders in hopes of obtaining the cash. They may not though. If the procedure moves too fast it may be too much and no amount of reward will trump the fear of spiders.

This is very important to remember when doing CC & D, GO SLOW! Do not be speedy about it, always let the dog decide how close to get, one thing we know for sure is that dogs either feel safe or unsafe, and they do a great job of letting us know.
How do you use it appropriately without worsening the situation?

Go slow. Keep the dog under threshold i.e. calm or as calm as you can by using distance. Make sure the sequence is correct so the scary thing predicts the reward - and make the reward really amazing. Keep the duration short. Only change one piece of the criteria in the plan at a time, meaning either change the distance, the duration of exposure, or the distraction, do not change all of them at once.
Is there a right way and a wrong way to go about treating this problem?

The wrong way is flooding the dog. The antiquated notion of “pushing the dog through it” is a great way to sensitize the dog to the very thing you would like the dog to feel good about. Sensitizing is making the dog worse by heavy exposure or forceful exposure. Even if you have a starving dog and a bucket of chicken if you are too close to the thing that makes the dog afraid and it is too intense, it is highly likely the dog will feel the fear and the food will not matter.

Counter Conditioning & Desensitizing by its very nature is based on having the dog calm, or at least not reacting and feeling ok and then associating the fearful experience with something amazing, usually food.
What about coddling the dog? Especially small dogs that often get picked up when they react?  Is it fear or resource guarding (the person)?

Good question, and who knows? Many times what is thought to be “aggression” is actually a dog that is frustrated by the leash or afraid of an approaching dog or person. Dogs are genetically predisposed to check out things, especially members of their own species. Of course in the modern times we live in this is not always possible so many dogs develop barrier frustration, which looks alarmingly like aggression or fear. Often this barrier frustration turns into aggression when dealt with aversively or not at all.

If there is a proven fear of something, people or dogs etc…and the person picks the dog up and uses jolly talk and rewards for the dog after it has calmed down, for example: “Poochy quite please it’s ok” then dog calms down then you reward, I would say it’s fine.

However if the owner picks the dog up and just jets away it is merely an intervention. Depending on the shock value and the dog’s comfort level with being picked up, it may or may not be a good idea. It depends on the dog and what the person has associated being picked up with in general.

Resource guarding has to be proven. Too many times people “think” the dog is protecting them and in actuality the dog is simply reacting out of its own concern or frustration. If for instance a dog lunges and snarls etc… each time someone approaches the owner, while the dog is on leash or more likely off leash in the home or at a dog park etc... and the dog goes nipping and barking after the person approaching the owner we may be able to say this dog is guarding the owner. However when a dog is on leash and reacts we have to break the whole behavioral package down into pieces in order to see just what the dog is afraid of or is the dog just frustrated?

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