Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Often in dog training circles the recommendation of how to deal with a situation where your dog has been frightened or is exhibiting signs of anxiety is to either ignore the dog or to ‘be upbeat’ to try to ‘jolly the dog’ out of the fear, and not to touch the dog.. Essentially, we are told not to attend to the dogs’ fear as this will reinforce the fear or let the dog think that you’re scared too. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Dogs, like humans, are social animals which means that their nervous systems (like ours) are attuned to members of the social group as a means of regulating the nervous system. As we form close bonds with our dogs this means that we are part of the dogs’ social group (and vice versa).
When we’re afraid we need to have contact, reassurance, comfort and soothing to help us feel safe again. It doesn’t reinforce our fear, it helps our nervous system to get back into regulation and to calm down. In social animals there are many ways that we signal whether we feel safe or not. These signals may come from our facial expressions, our vocalisations, gestures and through touch. If our dog is frightened and we are calm, then we can transmit the sense that ‘all is well’ by the expression on our face, by our soothing voice and by calming touch.
It is distressing and punishing for any social mammal to be ignored, especially when feeling frightened. Ignoring your dog doesn’t decrease it’s fear, it causes extra distress, and often this is not recognised as such, because the dog may shut down as a result, and this is often mistaken for the dog calming down, if he has previously been exhibiting over-arousal behaviours (lunging, barking, pulling etc). However, what has happened is that the nervous system has gone into a shut-down response, essentially because the ‘fight or flight’ hasn’t worked to remove the source of the fear. This is seen as the dog becoming still, with a collapsed posture, which may be confused with calmness. It is not calmness, it’s shutdown yet we might think that because the dog is no longer jumping, lunging and barking then he must have calmed down.
So, next time your dog gets a fright or is anxious don’t hesitate to offer reassurance in the form of talking to him in a soothing voice (much as you would do with a baby) and giving him calm, slow, soothing touch. You’ll be amazed at the effect!