Years ago people were told that if they comforted their pets when they were afraid, the pets would be more likely to be afraid next time. I remember hearing this advice and I could not comprehend why it was being used. If I am scared I want a loved one to comfort me and it definitely does not make me more fearful in the future. In some cases, I may be less fearful because I realize that the thing I was afraid of was not a big deal. If you think about this intuitively you can see that it does not make sense.
I think that that advice was given because it was believed that giving attention to the fearful behavior was actually reinforcing the behavior. What people did not realize is that when an animal (or person) is afraid, they cannot learn. In that moment, they are in survival mode and will usually go into fight, flight or freeze. There is a phrase from Between Parent and Teenager, by Haim Ginott that says, “If a person is drowning, that is not the time to teach him to swim”. Because an animal (or person) cannot learn when their nervous system is overwhelmed, the pet will not learn to be more fearful. That means that comforting your pet when they are afraid will not make him more afraid, but you could offer them some comfort. However, in some cases the comforting could stimulate the nervous system more and your “comforting” could make things worse (some people hate to be touched when they are scared). Regardless, you should consider trying to decrease your pets fear, when your dog is calm, so things are not so scary in the future.
There are many kind and humane was to help your pet overcome their fear. In some cases, you may need to talk to your veterinarian about giving your pet a medication to help decrease his fear while you work with a skilled trainer or behaviorist with a behavior modification plan. A behaviorist or skilled trainer can help you desensitize your dog to the fearful stimulus or help teach your dog that the fearful stimulus is not that scary. When the fear causing stimulus is predictable (like fireworks or thunderstorms) you can offer some comfort to your dog by using a Thundershirt or Pheromones to help decrease their anxiety during a stressful time (some dogs respond better than others using these therapies).
Being afraid is not fun for anyone. If your dog experiences something scary it is important that you try to help them overcome their fear. This can be difficult but it can help your dog live a happier life.
To prevent having a fearful dog, it is extremely important to socialize your puppy. Puppy classes are a great way to safely socialize them. To learn more, check out (avsab socialization statement).