It was one in the morning, and I was wide awake. Thunderstorms had been rolling like waves over the farm all night, and this one was so loud I thought the windows might break. Lassie, my 14-year-old Border Collie, lay panting beside me. She’s almost deaf, but the combination of a falling barometer, lightning flashes and the crashes of thunder were enough to send her into a panic. As we lay there together, I stroked her soft old head, thinking about the advice to avoid petting a dog who reacts to thunder. “You’ll just teach them to be more fearful,” according to the traditional wisdom. Only one thing: It’s not true.
We’ve been taught for ages that trying to soothe frightened dogs just makes them worse. It seems logical, in a cut-and-dried, stimulus-and-response kind of way. Your dog hears thunder, he runs to you and you pet him. Voilà, your dog just got reinforced for running to you when it thunders, and worse, for being afraid of thunderstorms in the first place. But that’s not what happens, and here’s why. First, no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people. The function of fear is to signal the body that there is danger present, and that the individual feeling fearful had better do something to make the danger, and the fear that accompanies it, go away.
Think of it this way: Imagine you’re eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream “reinforce” you for being afraid, so that you’d be more afraid the next time? If anything, things would work in the reverse—you might develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream. However, you sure as heck aren’t going to be more afraid if a burglar arrives because you were eating chocolate mocha fudge the first time it happened.
There’s another reason petting your thunder-phobic dog doesn’t make him worse, and it couldn’t hurt to take a deep breath before you read it. Research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* If it doesn’t decrease stress, how could it act as reinforcement? Before you write describing how your loving touch calms your own dog, please note that (1) I didn’t do the research; (2) my own dogs stop pacing and whining when I pet them during storms; and (3) I don’t care what the research says, it makes me feel better, it doesn’t hurt anything, so I do it anyway.
Humor aside, it’s important to be specific about what the study actually found. The authors measured the production of cortisol, a hormone related to stress. They found that cortisol levels did not decrease when the dogs were being petted by their guardians during storms. (The most important factor in decreasing cortisol was the presence of other dogs.) Interestingly, another piece of research on social bonding found that although cortisol levels decrease in people when they are interacting with dogs, cortisol does not decrease in dogs in the same context.** However, in both species, other hormones and neurotransmitters increased, including oxytocin, prolactin and beta-endorphin—all substances that are associated with good feelings and social bonding. So, while petting your dog during a storm may not decrease cortisol levels associated with stress, it is still possible that something good could be happening.
On the contrary, it’s just not possible that petting your dog is going to make her more fearful the next time there’s a storm. Warnings that you’ll ruin your dog by comforting her are reminiscent of the advice from the 1930s and ’40s to avoid comforting frightened children by picking them up. That perspective was tossed out long ago by psychologists, when research made it clear that having parents they can count on when life gets scary creates bold, stable children, not dependent or fearful ones.
A Classical Approach
The greatest damage that’s done with outdated “don’t pet the dog” advice doesn’t relate to storms, but to the pitfalls of trying to explain classical counter-conditioning (CCC). CCC can be a profoundly effective way to change behavior, because it changes the emotions that drive the behavior in the first place. A typical example in applied animal behavior is having visitors throw treats to a dog who is afraid of strangers.