A number of recent articles claim that, “You can’t reinforce fear.”  What they mean is that you cannot use positive reinforcement to create or maintain fear.  This would be true.  I can pay you to fake an Oscar worthy performance of being afraid of spiders.  However, I cannot pay you to BE afraid of spiders.

However, you can, absolutely enable fear via negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is a bit challenging to understand.  You can read how it works in more detail here in a previous blog post.

The Reader’s Digest condensed definition of negative reinforcement is that you stop something unpleasant in order to increase behaviour.  Presumably you have to start being aversive in order to stop it.  For example, you can’t turn off a car unless someone started it first.  The important point being that it is the cessation of something unpleasant that has all the power.

In dog training, negative reinforcement is used a fair bit.  Turning off continuous shock when a dog obeys is one example.  Nagging is a classic example of negative reinforcement.  Fear also works.  Dogs can learn if they act calm, they can move away from something that makes them nervous.

Negative reinforcement supports a wide range of fears and phobia.  For example, some people stay in their home because they are afraid of social situations.  Anxiety reduces when outings are successfully avoided.  Staying at home increases.

In order to survive in this world, we develop coping strategies.  Not all of them are healthy.  Some people might brave the world if a close friend tags along.  For lack of a better word, the friend acts as a crutch or buffer.  Their presence prevents the phobic person from facing the root of their fear, on their own.

These are maladaptive coping strategies.  Other publications call them safety behaviours and safety signals.  Maladaptive strategies create a rapid drop in anxiety, but stand in the way of addressing the primary fear.  Continued practice of these maladaptive strategies makes the patient better at avoiding the real problem.  Fear festers in silence.

Negative Reinforcement
Negative Reinforcement

Similar things happen to our dogs.  Fear can be maintained with negative reinforcement.  In order to cope, our pets can create maladaptive strategies that deceptively look like cures.

For example, nervous dogs might take a back seat to another dog in the home.  So long as “big brother” takes the lead in social situations, owners fail to see any sign of fear.  Anxiety festers.  The dog fails to develop social skills – until one day big brother is no longer around.  The poor dog is ravaged with terror.

Owners can also become a crutch by repeatedly bailing (rather than occasionally helping) dogs out of difficult situations.  Dogs become dependent on the owner in an unhealthy way.  Instead of learning how to handle difficult situations, they learn how to escape when thing get uncomfortable.  Owners offer an easy out.

If it makes you recoil at the possibility of being an enabler, understand that negative reinforcement is powerful and subtle.  The curative appearance that safety behaviours create can fool expert eyes.

Our role, as owners or coaches is to help empower our dogs.  We need to give them roots and wings.  This means careful self-reflection – bitter, painful, self-reflection.  Are we serving the dog, teaching it to face its fear?  Or are we intentionally giving the dog an escape route?

By no means am I advocating that dogs sink or swim.  There is no reason to work a dog to the point of discomfort.  There are plenty of options such as desensitization and counter conditioning.  New advances in their execution are improving upon already impressive results.

However, what I am pointing out is that you can enable fear through negative reinforcement.  You can fool yourself into thinking that you have cured said fear if you intentionally or accidentally create a safety behaviour that allows or encourages escape.

Perhaps you are fine with that, so long as your dog stops being embarrassing in public.  Remember that life isn’t always fair.  Owners get sick, divorced – heck they go on holidays.  Dogs become lost and end up in a shelter.  Like the dog that lost its “big brother”, how will your dog feel and behave when abruptly forced to face a very scary world all alone?  What will your dog do when they no longer have you to turn to as a routine escape plan?  What will you do when your dog is cornered unexpectedly because they are charged by something or someone scary?

Regardless of your personal decision, understand that negative reinforcement plays a role in keeping phobias alive whether you like it or not.  If you’re helping a nervous dog to overcome its fears, it pays to understand how negative reinforcement works, how it maintains fear, and the risks that tag along for the ride  When a quadrant has this much power, it pays to know it inside out..

**Safety behaviours and safety  signals link only works in some browsers like Chrome.  If the link doesn’t work, please try changing browsers.