Emotional Arousal, Reinforcement, and Punishment

Many behavior problems in pets involve emotional arousal.  It is well known that emotions drive behaviors.  If you are afraid of insects for example (Suzanne is a real ‘bug-a-phobe’!), you would have a difficult time holding still and being quiet if someone asked you to hold a spider in your hand.  This would be virtually impossible for you if your fear is intense enough. 


The same is true for our pets.  If your dog is uncomfortable around children, asking him to ‘sit’ while a child pets him isn’t going to work well.  If one cat is afraid of another, holding one cat while the other approaches so the ‘fraidy cat’ can learn there’s nothing to be afraid of may make things worse.


Fears are not always rational.  As a zoologist, Suzanne clearly knows a little house spider won’t hurt her, but this doesn’t help her feel better about holding a spider in her hand.  This rational component may not even be present with our pets.  The dog may be convinced that the child is indeed going to hurt him, and the cat may believe her survival depends on avoiding the other cat. 


Emotions aren’t affected by reinforcement and punishment in the same way voluntary behaviors are.  Fears don’t lessen if someone attempts to punish them, nor do they become worse if we attempt to reward them.  Dan can’t make Suzanne less afraid of spiders by yelling at her, nor can he make her more afraid by hugging her when she sees a spider.  In fact, just the opposite may happen. 


Aversive events tend to increase emotional arousal.  So Dan yelling at Suzanne if she acts afraid when a spider crawls up her leg may actually increase her fear.  Now not only does she have her spider-fear to deal with, but the unpleasantness of being yelled at by her husband as well.


On the other hand, if Dan hugs Suzanne and talks soothingly to her, she may calm down and have less of a reaction to the spider.  This may seem opposite to what you’ve probably read in popular literature, which says you should never reassure an animal when he is afraid, as this will only reward the fear. 


Can you see from Suzanne’s spider example why this isn’t true?  People generally have a difficult time with these concepts until they try them.  For example, during the initial stages of a consultation, we often have dogs bark and growl at us.  Our reaction is to use the appropriate body postures to make ourselves appear non-threatening (see our Canine Body Posture DVD), and toss treats to the dog.  If this were rewarding threatening behavior, causing it to escalate, after 25 years of doing so, we would likely have been severely injured by these dogs by now and made a whole lot of dogs more aggressive!  Neither is true.


Instead, just the opposite happens.  The dogs calm down, often switch to friendly displays, and want more treats.  This is an example of classical counter conditioning at work.  This type of conditioning can be a powerful way to change behaviors associated with emotional arousal. 


To learn more, take our ON DEMAND course “Using Counter Conditioning and Desensitization Effectively”  or purchase the course on DVD.

  • Contact Us

    Animal Behavior Associates, Inc.
    7900 W. Layton Ave. #905 Denver, CO 80123