Just wondering what others think
Can Fear be Rewarded?
Of all the myths and misconceptions that have surrounded dog behavior and training for a very long time, perhaps the most persistent is the one that claims it is possible to reinforce an animal's fear by paying attention to him or trying to reassure him. This was certainly a belief some of Suzanne's first mentors indoctrinated her with close to thirty years ago.
For almost that long, behavioral researchers have known that it is difficult to influence emotional states and involuntary behaviors using rewards and punishments. Ever tried to influence your heart rate or other physiological parameter using biofeedback? Not easy to learn, even given the cognitive abilities of people that animals don't share.
So, if your dog is afraid of say thunder, and you hold your pet and calmly stroke her to help her relax and calm down do you think her fearful behavior is likely to increase? That's what reinforcement does - increase the frequency of behaviors it follows. So if reassurance rewards fearful behavior, then it also follows that your pet is becoming more afraid as a result. It's the emotion of fear that is expressed with observable behaviors. If your pet's feelings of being afraid don't intensify, then neither will her fearful behaviors.
There seems to be a persistent belief that it is possible to reward fearful behaviors without rewarding the emotion of fear. This may be true in people. We all know individuals with a "martyr" mentality who will act fearful and helpless just to get attention and have others take care of them.
This doesn't seem to be true for animals. They don't pretend. If they don't feel afraid, they don't act afraid. When their emotional state changes, so do their behaviors.
Behavioral researchers back in the 1940s, conditioned rats to jump to the other side of their enclosure in order to avoid the shock that followed a buzzer. In the next phase of training, the researchers changed the sequence so that cheese followed the buzzer and the shock was discontinued.
Over multiple experiences with cheese follows buzzer, even as the rats attempted to jump to the other side, do you think the rats became more fearful and increased their jumping behavior? That's what would happen if you believe the jumping behavior (and therefore the fear) was reinforced by the cheese.
Just the opposite occurred. The rats' fear decreased, the jumping stopped and they began to eat the cheese. This is an example of classical conditioning changing behavior by changing emotional state rather than operant conditioning rewarding fear.
Copyright 2007, written by Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. and Daniel Q. Estep, Ph.D., Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. Reprinted with permission from “Pet Behavior One Piece at a Time”.