Can You Reinforce a Dog’s Emotional State?

woman with dog

I recently received an email asking whether I had any books that addressed how to help a dog who was grieving. Since I don’t, I searched online to find an article that might be of help. What I found surprised me. Although there was solid advice, one of the recommendations in almost every article was to be careful so as not to inadvertently “reward the behavior” by giving the dog attention. Really? Hmm.Let’s see. As it happens, my best girlfriend’s mother just passed away. I will be spending the day with her today. I expect she will be sad, and that we will discuss things, and that I will comfort her, because that is what friends do. Now, of course dogs are not people and we can’t comfort them with words, but the emotions of loss and grief are the same, to whatever extent and however they are experienced by animals and people. Why in the world would we not comfort a grieving dog?

Although rewarding a dog with attention can reinforce a behavior, it does not reinforce an emotion. This reminds me of the persistent myth about reinforcing fear. Time after time I have read articles and books that warn that when a dog is afraid, the best thing to do is ignore him so as not to “reinforce the fear.” Although presenting a nervous demeanor yourself while giving your dog attention could cause him to be more nervous, sitting calmly with him and stroking him is certainly not going to cause him to become fearful more often. What it might well do is actually comfort him.

It is wonderful that we have so much advice readily available at our fingertips. But even when an “expert” advises you to do something you feel in your gut is simply not right when it comes to the emotional life of your dog, heed that instinct. You know your dog best, and rewarding with attention does not make you a reinforcer of emotion. It makes you a kind, compassionate person.

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11 Responses to Can You Reinforce a Dog’s Emotional State?

  1. C.E.Robinson says:

    Nicole, I’m with you on this one! If you have a relationship with your dog, in tune with behaviors and reactions, why wouldn’t you soothe grief, fear, etc. Help to get over the process. Makes sense to me! Christine

  2. Nicole K says:

    It’s hard for people to understand this message but I hope more articles like this become available for people to share. I do have a question though that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and that is the counter/classical conditioning aspect when you are changing/building a CER (whether intentionally or not) and how that fits in. Thanks 🙂

  3. My rough collie grieved when we lost our GSD. He was at a total loss and stayed close to me nearly all the time. After a couple of weeks, I ended up getting another GSD (rescue) to keep him company, and within a few days, he was coping better. Every dog (and owner) is different.

  4. Ray Bryan says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Grief is not a teaching opportunity. Denying attention when it’s needed is simply cruel.

  5. Reblogged this on Tail Waggin' Times and commented:
    Emotions are not behavior. Comforting a child who has just had a nightmare doesn’t increase the likelihood of nightmares. Comforting your dog doesn’t increase emotional distress. It decreases it!

  6. Sarah Shepherd says:

    I agree-dogs grieve & need comfort. When my older rough collie died a year ago, my other collie, Jazz, experienced severe grief. He looked everywhere for his mate. He would pick up a toy, squeak it, look around, hopeful, then sigh & lie down. He would not play with me. He would go outside and bark, then wait…his affect was flat. He was present when Chey died-my vet came to my house. Her specialty is behavior and I took a lot of video for her. When I took Jazz for an appt, he was like a different dog. I had not planned on getting a 2nd collie again (getting older), but Jazz needed one. Six weeks later, we got “Buddy Baxter”. The effect on Jazz was immediate! He was a happy dog again. Bax was a rescue & 2 mos later he needed dental surgery. Jazz went into his “grieving” behavior as soon as we left Bax. We drove back to the surgery clinic early & Jazz was fine as long as we stayed in the waiting room. & so excited when they brought Bax out to go home!

  7. Jenny H says:

    The real problem is the terminology used. What you do CAN have an effect of a dogs (or anyone else’s) emotions.
    Calm support can reduce fear. (Come on, silly,. That is just a man wearing a hat. He’s OK.)
    Hysterical “empathising” can increase fear. (Oh, my God! Look at that man coming towards us! )

  8. Rosie Price says:

    Thank you for sharing such a great story. Such an eye opener on the way dogs grieve.

  9. Joey says:

    Love your point of view on this subject. Being that close with your dog that you can grief together, is something really special!

  10. Regarding puppies and the fears they experience, remember that in the wild, animal parents protect their offspring from danger, even to the death of the parents. Puppies learn that they can rely on their parents to intervene for them and protect them. When we refuse to help a fearful pup, we’re teaching that pup that he can’t count on his human family to help him and that he’s on his own when coping with threatening situations. How many pups grow up to show aggression because they’ve learned they won’t be helped and they have to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves.

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