Can petting make fearful behavior worse?

Many dogs seek attention, follow us around, bark, howl etc. when they’re afraid. Owners are often afraid that if they pet/comfort their dogs, the situation will get worse because they’ll be “rewarding” these behaviors. Let’s look at this from the scientific perspective.

No, petting can not make fearful behaviors worse.

Firstly, when your dog is afraid all those “bad” behaviors are symptoms of their emotional state. Fear is an emotion that tells us that we are in imminent danger and I think it is safe to assume that it is universally unpleasant[efn note]The brain parts responsible for basic feelings like fear are virtually identical in humans and other mammals. 1. As Patricia McConnell2 once wrote: “no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked”.

Secondly, what you’re thinking about here is the principle of operant conditioning – that you can make a behavior more likely to occur by rewarding it.

  • The thing is, we established that these fearful behaviors are symptoms of stress. That means that the assumption that the dog behaves that way in order to get petted/get attention is false and so you cannot reinforce these behaviors with petting because petting is not what the dog is after. The dog wants to feel safe.
  • Moreover, operant conditioning is used for training voluntary behaviors and what your dog is doing during the thunderstorm is involuntary.

Another thing: refusing to comfort them may result in them looking for some other, much less desirable outlets for their anxiety such as chewing stuff…

And no, your dog will not “just get over it”.

What we mean by “getting over something” is called habituation in scientific jargon. It is the process of getting used to something until it becomes nothing more than background noise. But this can only work if the stimulus is not intense enough 3 to make us very uncomfortable.

If the stimulus is very intense – as is the case with fireworks – exposure to it will achieve the opposite 4 and the dog will end up either properly terrified (for example: urinating, destroying stuff) or will shut down completely.

The only way of making these behaviors better is to reduce the level of fear/stress that your dog is experiencing. You can read about it in my post about fireworks’ and storm phobias.


  1. If you’re interested, check out Jaak Panksepp’s “Affective neuroscience” or James O’Heare’s “Canine Neuropsychology”.
  2. One of the pioneers of modern day dog training
  3. below threshold
  4. jargon: sensitization