Timid Pets: What this means and how you can help
President Franklin Roosevelt said in his inauguration speech, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” At this time, the country was in the middle of the worst depression it had ever experienced, but his words can certainly apply to many situations in current time.
He further described that fear as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror,” which makes it sound pretty scary. When we feel fear ourselves, it can range from mild to paralyzing, and could prevent us from doing anything about it. When we spot other humans in fear, particularly children, our first, instinctual response is to comfort them, tell them it will be alright, and try to make the fear go away.
When it comes to our pets, and primarily dogs, though, this is exactly the wrong thing to do.
The reasoning for this conflict is that a dog relates your behavior to whatever he is doing in the moment, and that is in short how positive reinforcement training works. If you want to teach a dog to “shake,” you have to associate that behavior with a reward instantly (like a cookie and praise) until the dog instinctively knows, “If I do this thing with my paw, something good happens right away.”
To our dogs, affection is a reward. By comforting a fearful dog, you are rewarding what he is doing in that moment: being scared. You cannot explain to a dog why he shouldn’t be scared, or tell the dog that the frightening thing won’t hurt it or is going away soon — they do not have the cognitive abilities to understand those concepts. What they do understand is, “I’m terrified and it’s getting me a reward. My human wants me to do this.”
Over time, a timid, back-of-the-pack dog can be turned into a skittish, terrified animal because of humans unintentionally rewarding him when he’s in a negative energy state. Dogs don’t need love when they’re fearful; they need leadership. As their humans, we owe them the support they need to navigate through things.
It is perfectly natural to want to comfort any creature experiencing fear. It demonstrates compassion and empathy. However, if you find that you are using a technique with your timid dog that might actually be prolonging this behavior, try switching it up to see if the situation improves. It is always a great idea to utilize the skills of professional behaviorists as well. Talk to your veterinarian about what recommendations they may have.
Has your pet demonstrated fear?