Positive Reinforcement – Anxiety Rehabilitation

Treats can be successful in reassuring Dogs with low levels of anxiety, and, if treats are successful, commonly people do not contact me – this is a good thing!

If using treats is not successful in a very short time period (one or two attempts), continuing to rely on treats will often heighten the anxiety.

Dogs with anxiety will not be convinced to change their perception (often based on a previous experience), or their reaction (often a learned behaviour), because of a treat. Treats decrease the ability for people to read their dog and calmly manage the situation. Treats are rarely the reward the dog wants during a stressful situation.

Encouraging (or, in my opinion, bribing) a dog to feel comfortable in a situation by treating her in it often backfires because she feels tricked and the treat adds to her confusion (“Never Teach in the Negative”).

Encouraging (or, in my opinion, forcing) dogs to like people by having the person give a treat to the dog results in her feeling more stressed and confused. She may hide, react to keep the person at bay, or take the treat and then, often seconds later, snap or bite the person who gave her the treat. When dogs indicated they are uncomfortable with a person approaching, then forcing the issue can escalate the reaction.

A growl may escalate to a bark, and then to a bite. The initial goal is not to force the dog to like the person, but to teach her she does not need to do the unwanted behaviour to achieve her goal, which is commonly to be left alone (“Do Not Rush to the End Goal”).

Client Example: When my client, Stewart, adopted Haida, he was told she was nervous of new people, and it was suggested to him to give visitors a treat to give to Haida. Haida willingly took the treat from Stewart’s visitor, Bob, and she allowed Bob to pat her. Stewart and Bob were convinced Haida liked Bob and did not feel the need to direct her or manage the situation when Bob got up to go to the bathroom. Haida barked at Bob when he came out of the bathroom.

Upon realizing Haida did not like or dislike specific people, but her reaction was based on the situation. Stewart gave Bob a treat to give to Haida the next time he came out of the bathroom. Haida barked and refused to take the treat. Although the factor was the situation, not the person, treating Haida did not change her perception of the situation. She took the treat from Bob when he first entered the home because she was comfortable in that moment but was uncomfortable when he came out of the bathroom.

Stewart was forcing the end goal of Haida liking Bob instead of apply techniques that give Haida her chosen goal (that she was not forced to like Bob – the reason for her barking was to maintain a distance). When Stewart applied the Tools, Haida became comfortable enough to stop barking, allowing her to think and process, and, in turn, her comfort level increased, resulting in her liking Bob.

At this point, Bob gave her a treat, not to convince her to like him, but just because she liked treats.

Why do Dogs take the treat and then bite? Is taking a treat not a sign of trust and comfort?

Well, admittedly, I have accepted the occasional free drink from a guy in a bar even though I really was not all that interested in becoming his “friend”. Did it give him the true impression of my feelings? Was I more reassured of his intentions? No. So why did I do it?

Maybe it just served to appease him for a bit. Or maybe tricking him into thinking I liked him worked in my favour because, hey, wasn’t he just bribing me? Or maybe I just wanted the beer and then wanted him to go away. Was it the smartest thing to do? No. Will I do it again? Probably, because it worked in my favour.

(From “The Art of Urban People With Adopted and Rescued Dogs Methodology”)