Should You Comfort Your Dog When He's Afraid?

Some dog behaviorists believe you reward fearful behavior by trying to comfort a scared pup. 279photo/Shutterstock

Dogs frightened of thunderstorms or fireworks will often look to their humans for comfort, jumping in their laps or clinging to their legs trying desperately to find relief. But the experts are divided on whether you should try to comfort them. Some think that reassuring them when they're scared rewards the fearful behavior. Others think it's our job as pack leaders to give them the safety they need.

How do you decide what to do if your pup suffers from noise anxiety or noise phobia? To help you decide, here's a look at what some canine behaviorists, trainers and vets suggest.

Don't reward fearful behavior

When our pets are afraid, it's natural for most people to treat them the way we would treat young children, by trying to comfort them, says Stanley Coren, Ph.D., author of several books including "How to Speak Dog."

"With dogs, however, this is exactly the wrong thing to do," Coren says in Psychology Today. "Petting a dog when he's acting in a fearful manner actually serves as a reward for the behavior; it's almost as if we're telling the dog that being afraid in this situation is the right thing to do."

Coren says comforting a dog that way actually makes the pet more likely to be afraid the next time.

Many canine behaviorists and vets advise not acknowledging your dog's fear in any way.

"Attempting to reassure your dog when she’s afraid may reinforce her fearful behavior," advises the Humane Society of Greater Miami. "If you pet, soothe or give treats to her when she’s behaving fearfully, she may interpret this as a reward for her fearful behavior. Instead, try to behave normally, as if you don’t notice her fearfulness."

That doesn't mean ignore your dog when he's anxious because of thunderstorms, fireworks or for any other reason.

Dr. Daniel S. Mills, a veterinarian at the University of Lincoln in England and an expert on canine noise aversion, tells the Anchorage Daily News that owners should “acknowledge the dog but not fuss over it. Then show that the environment is safe and not compatible with threat, by playing around and seeing if the dog wants to join you. But don’t force it. Let it make a choice.”

Give your dog the comfort he needs

scared dog climbing on person
If a dog comes to you for comfort, do you give it to him or ignore him?. Annette Shaff/Shutterstock

It can be absolutely heartbreaking to watch a petrified pet who starts trembling and panting when loud noises start. For pet owners who can't stand the idea of not trying to help, other experts say it's totally fine to soothe them. After all, dogs look for safety with their packs and we are their packs.

“You can’t reinforce anxiety by comforting a dog,” Dr. Melissa Bain, an associate professor of clinical animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, tells the Anchorage Daily News. “You won’t make the fear worse. Do what you need to do to help your dog.”

Dog trainer and author Victoria Stilwell, star of the TV series, "It’s Me or the Dog," agrees it's important that the owner be there to reassure the dog if the dog comes looking for comfort.

"Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, an owner’s comforting arm and presence can help a phobic dog to cope as long as the owner remains calm at all times," Stillwell says.

Ignoring your dog when it's scared is outdated advice, according to a patient handout from the Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Ignoring a fearful, panicky dog deprives him of whatever comfort and psychological support you can give him. It also leaves him without any information about what he should be doing instead," according to UPenn. "If there is an activity your dog can’t get enough of, that is something to do during storms. This can include playing fetch, chase games, even cuddling and petting, or holding the dog firmly next to you if that comforts him."

Do what your dog needs

dog hiding under bed
If your dog finds comfort in hiding, you may just want to leave her alone. NARUCHA KLINUDOM/Shutterstock

With experts divided on what's to do, it's probably best to just listen to your dog. If he's scared and has found a place to hide, that's likely the comfort he needs and you can let him try to work it out. But if he comes looking for you to reassurance, you may just want to give it to him.

"If a dog seeks you out as a comfort force, I wouldn't turn the dog away," Atlanta-based internationally certified dog behavior consultant Lisa Matthews tells Treehugger. "If they went to distance themselves and find a corner or safe space, I wouldn't go seek them out and say, 'Oh my gosh, let me hold you!' I would let them self soothe."

Matthews says that although she understands the thinking that the behavior might be reinforced that way, she points out there's no real science to back up either way of thinking.

"The jury is out on whether the dog would be reinforced by offering that condolence," she says. "We have to realize an animal is in distress. Why in the world would you turn your back to an animal in distress?"

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.