By Mikkel Becker
Are you helping or hurting your pet by providing comfort? You may have heard that comforting a pet when he’s frightened is the wrong thing to do because it “reinforces” that he’s right to be fearful. I’m here to share the good news with you that this concept isn’t correct. Here’s what to know about calming your pet.
You’re not “reinforcing fear” by providing comfort to a pet. Many animals act calmer if they are near their favorite human or if they are handled and interacted with in a manner they find reassuring.
You may, however, escalate your pet’s stress if he picks up on cues that you are nervous or on edge. If you are attempting to comfort him in a way that’s different from how you normally interact with him, such as hovering or jumping to attend to him immediately, it may signal to your dog or cat that you are upset. His response may be to become worried himself.
If petting, massage, and T-touch handling help your pet to visibly settle, by all means, do it! But if the dog or cat avoids touch or acts agitated or upset with handling, give him some space or interact in a more hands-off manner such as redirecting his attention to a food puzzle or other favorite toy.
Left untreated fears can escalate overtime. Although it is ok for your dog to seek comfort with your presence when he is afraid, allowing that to be the sole coping strategy can be a recipe for disaster. For example, if your dog becomes frightened by something when he is home alone, he might panic because he has not learned any other successful coping strategies. Talk to your pet’s veterinary team about who they recommend for assistance in addressing your pet’s fears before they escalate.
Dogs pick up cues from people on whether to relax or panic. The more comfortable and calm you feel, the more likely your pet will pick up the message and relax in turn.
To communicate a calm demeanor, start by working with your pet’s veterinary team to create an action plan for responding to fear, anxiety, and stress in the home. Knowing how you’ll react to your pet’s angst is empowering for you and communicates to your pet that all is well.
To reinforce that calm demeanor for yourself, practice deep breathing and mindfulness. Settling down with a relaxing read, watching a feel-good show, or playing music you like are other potential ways to decrease your own stress and, by extension, your dog’s.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.