Does Fear Have Any Place in Dog Training?
Lack of Physical and Emotional Balance
Human beings can suffer from a panoply of fears and phobias including a fear of flying, fear of public speaking, fear of heights, fear of confrontation, arachnophobia (fear of spiders), agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), and on and on.
Dogs, too, can develop fears and phobias: a fear of loud noises, fear of the vet’s office, thunderphobia, fear of men in hats, and so on.
And whether in dogs and humans, fear has an easily recognizable signature that can be seen in how the person or dog moves in their body through space. (This is much more transparent in dogs than it is in human beings.)
What this kind of posture ^ indicates is a feeling of being thrown off-balance both physically and emotionally. I’ve written many times about my dog Freddie’s panic attacks and how whenever he had one he would get low to the ground and tremble, etc. But when I could get him to speak on command, all the fear left his body—at least temporarily—and his head, shoulders and tail all came back up to their normal position, upright positions. Fear physically pushes a dog’s head and shoulders down. Confidence lifts them up.
Fright as a Way to Release Fear
Since this series of posts is ostensibly about the use and/or misuse of so-called aversive techniques in dog training—fear, force, punishment and corrections—and since I’ve made a case so far for the use of force, punishment, and corrections (within certain parameters), is there any value in using fear as a training tool or as a motivation for learning?
In a sense, yes.
I’m not advocating for scaring a dog into obeying commands. What I am advocating for is a very specific “scare tactic,” which is similar to the way we throw young kids up in the air (and catch them), and where we pretend to be monsters or zombies on Halloween and make them shriek in a combination of pleasure and fear.
Here’s a little-known fact about fear. It can be enormously pleasurable.
What!? Are you kidding?
Nope. Within certain controlled parameters, fear—particularly in the form of mock danger—can be easily translated into immense pleasure and feelings of power. This is why teenagers—particularly teenage girls—like scary movies and why kids love Halloween.
From an article in The Atlantic Monthly: “The natural high from the fight or flight response can feel great. There is strong evidence that this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry. New research … shows that people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situations. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do.”
So Should We Use Fear in Training?
Again, within certain controlled parameters the feeling of fear can be easily (or fairly easily, depending on the dog and the owner) transformed.
There are two exercises which—when done carefully—can accomplish this goal. But in all honesty, one requires a level of understanding and expertise that most dog owners and, for that matter, that most dog trainers (including me) don’t have. So rather than provide details on how to do it, let me just say that there’s a means of scaring a dog to his core in such a way that instead of cowering or running off the dog stands his ground, barks his head off, and, in some cases, tries to rip his trainer to shreds.
This obviously requires the trainer to wear the kind of padded suit and gloves used for training police and military dogs. It’s also a two-man (or two-woman) job. Plus, it requires a certain level of aggression in the dog. You can’t do it with a scared dog, at least not until you’ve done other exercises—like the 5 Core Exercises of Natural Dog Training—which by themselves can resolve most of the dog’s fears.
In other words, don’t try this at home.
The second exercise is a bit easier. And it’s usually a lot safer. But it still also involves a certain amount of risk, depending on the dog.
In this exercise you simply lift, push, or pull the dog onto a platform of some kind—a ledge, a rock, a picnic table—which should be a bit higher than something the dog would normally be able to climb up to on her own.
Don't Try This with an Aggressive Dog!
However, there’s a bit more to it in that you have to make sure that the dog struggles to make it to the top of the platform and feels, at least momentarily, that’s she’s about to fall. In other words, just like the first exercise, you’re deliberately triggering the dog’s deepest fears. But once the dog is able to make it to the top of the platform she feels more grounded and more powerful than before. In other words, her fear has dissipated.
That said, this exercise can also be dangerous to the handler. Some dogs will bite you—or try to—rather than allow you to force them into position.
Still, the truth is that, just like kids at Halloween, the feeling of fear in dogs can be transformed into feelings of pleasure, power, and a kind of giddy happiness.
And that’s not a bad thing.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”