Ask the Trainer

Hello Fran,

I have a question regarding my dog’s behavior. I’ve had Bailey since he was 8 weeks old and he’s always been shy of people, and now that he’s an adult his fear of people is getting worse. Lately when people come into the house he growls and hides. I pick him up and tell him everything is going to be okay, but I’ve been told that I’m only reinforcing his behavior when I do this. I don’t know how to stop this bad behavior around people. Is this something you can help me with?

~ Sharon


Hi Sharon,

Yes, I think I can help, but this will take some time and you’ll need a good understanding of what may be going on with your dog, Bailey.

There are MANY misconceptions about dog behavior, especially about reinforcement, and I believe that when most people hear reinforcement, think it means the dog is getting a treat, which is not necessarily true, and definitely not true when were dealing with highly emotionally charged behaviors that are driven by the animal’s need to stay and fight or take flight. But in either case, if the dog (or human, for that matter) were not “concerned” about the scary stimulus or event, the behavior would not be present. This is NOT the same scenario as a dog doing a behavior because of a consequence (i.e., dog sits and is given a consequence of a treat or dog jumps up on people and is given a consequence of a time-out). In other words, if you pick up fido when he’s frightened and pet him, do you really think you can give your dog permission to be afraid? “Oh Fido, you are such a good boy to be afraid!”

I think the best way to explain this is by relating it to the human experience, so let’s say that instead of this being about your dog, let’s say  the boss of a company was writing this letter about his employee.

Dear Fran, I have this employee whose fear of public speaking is getting worse. Every time I ask her to lead a meeting she begins to get very anxious and avoids  me. I try to sooth her feelings by telling her it’s going to be okay, but she still won’t lead a meeting. I’m concerned that I may be reinforcing this bad behavior. How do I make this stop?

So do you think the fearful behavior would be reinforced by the boss trying to sooth his employee? The answer is that it depends. If it gets the person out of having to lead the meeting then his employee will use her behavior as a strategy for not having to speak in public.  Technically the behavior is being negatively reinforced, meaning the person feels relief because the boss has removed the pressure of her having to speak at the meeting, however it will NOT stop her anxiety about public speaking, because that is the one component that hasn’t changed. If her emotional state gets changed such that she slowly gets used to say speaking to one person, then another and so on until she is comfortable with a large group, the anxious behavior will disappear.

Likewise, talking nicely to the dog and holding him is negatively reinforcing his behavior only if he feels the relief of not having his space invaded by strangers, however just like the above example, the dog is still fearful of strangers. It is his emotional state that needs to be changed and then he won’t be growling and trying to escape. To do this we need to show Bailey that strangers are predictors of good things.

Another way to look at this is that both the employee and Bailey, do not feel safe and they “act out” accordingly. The other question to ask is what would happen if the behaviors were positively punished? Suppose Bailey’s growling was met with a collar correction and or yelling, and suppose the employee’s anxiety was met with her boss yelling or humiliating her. Do you think either of those protocols would get Bailey to feel safe and friendly around visitors or for the employee to feel safe and confident at a meeting?

When dealing with fear or anxiety, the emphasis should not be on let’s change this “bad” behavior, but rather let’s change the fearful emotions. The physical behavior is a reflection of the animal’s state of mind and will change as soon as the person or animal feels safe.

Thanks Sharon, and if you fill out the questionnaire on the “Home School” page, we can schedule a consultation.

Happy Training!