An open line of communication between owner and dog does not always ensure that the messages sent will be received correctly. A common instance in which unintentional messages are sent to a dog is during a fearful episode. The dog encounters a frightening object, event, or person and displays a variety of fear reactions, which may include shaking, barking, and backing away. The owner then sends out messages to comfort and assure the dog that there is no reason to be fearful.
These messages are highly potent as the owner lovingly strokes the dog and commiserates with a cross between baby talk and sincere empathy, “It’s okay, no one will hurt you.” The message the owner intends to send to the dog is the information that the situation is not threatening. The message the dog receives through the stroking and baby talk is that acting and being fearful is rewarding and pleasing to the owner.
Being consoled and stroked overshadows any information the dog could receive from the environment should he be allowed to remain in the situation without any intervention. Furthermore, the dog is reinforced for exhibiting fearful behavior by the pleasure of being stroked and consoled. Avoid the strong temptation to lovingly comfort the fearful dog lest he learn to act frightened for subsequent reinforcement.