Understanding Approach-Avoidance Behaviors in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Understanding Dog Approach-Avoidance Behaviors

At times, dog owners come to me and label their dogs as having an ambivalent personality—some sort of canine personification of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The dog may appear to be friendly one minute and then fearful or even defensive the next.

When doing an assessment, you see these dogs approach and retreat and approach and retreat again in an ambiguous dance. In this case, Rover may appear to be unable to make a decision, but most likely there's more going on than just rational thinking. Most likely, we're looking at some sort of approach/avoidance conflict with instinctive behaviors intertwined.


In approach, the animal may be drawn to a situation because it may have produced positive outcomes in the past. Curiosity often draws animals to investigate something. If past investigative approaches have resulted in positive outcomes, the dog may be more likely to be drawn to new things in the future. Approach in these cases involves positive reinforcement. Neophobic dogs, on the other hand are very tentative to embrace new stimuli and may stop investigating because of past negative experiences..

What is considered positive or negative though depends on the dog. The dog may feel drawn to a person because in the past this person has fed him food, but the dog may be also drawn to move closer to a person when he does so offensively such as to send the mailman away. Therefore, it's very important to read the dog's accompanying body language/vocalizations to tell if approach is meant to decrease distance or increase it.


In avoidance, animals are naturally drawn to avoid situations that are deemed as unsafe or that have a history of resulting in an aversive, negative outcome. The animal therefore feels relief when he's presented with an unpleasant situation and removes himself from that. Avoidance in this case involves negative reinforcement, meaning that the dog feels better when he avoids the situation and will feel compelled to avoid it as well in the future.

Avoidance behaviors are common in humans. If you are terrified of flying and on departure day you decide to cancel your flight because of your fear, you'll likely feel great relief. This relief will feel so good, next time you must fly, you'll feel tempted to avoid flying again.

Same goes when there's a person you don't like and you see this person at the mall. Most likely, you'll walk in another direction and feel relief when you see this person hasn't noticed you.

In animals, avoidance behavior is often adaptive (linked to survival) to avoid situations that have a history of causing negative outcomes.

In this article, we will discuss the approach and avoidance behavior in a dog who is drawn but at the same time repelled from a stimulus or situation.

This type of conflict is quite common in fearful dogs who will advance and retreat in what I call the "approach/avoidance dance." What causes a dog to engage in this behavior, and how can the dog be helped?

How to Deal With Approach Avoidance Conflict in Dogs?

Approach avoidance conflict was first introduced by psychologist Kurt Lewin, a founder of modern social psychology. Indeed, this phenomenon is popular among people as well as dogs.

William James in his book Principles of Psychology claims that pleasure is a "tremendous reinforcer" of behavior and pain is a "tremendous inhibitor" of behavior. This is very true when it comes to dog behavior. Dogs will naturally seek pleasure and try to avoid pain/discomfort if there's awareness of it.

In certain circumstances, dogs may be drawn and repelled by a stimulus at the same time. This causes the dog to engage in approach and avoidance behavior.

When the dog is far from the stimulus it appears desirable, but then as the dog gets closer, the stimulus appears less desirable and even scary.

The Problem With Stranger Handing Out Food

The approach-avoidance phenomenon is one of the main reasons why it's best not to have strangers hand out food to your dog. The dog may not like strangers, but the food is oh, so appealing. So from a distance, the dog sees the outstretched hand and the tasty treat, the person therefore appears appealing, but as the dog gets closer, he'll likely tentatively take the food from the hand as he stretches his neck, but in the meanwhile, he may realize how close he is to the stranger. Next, all alarm bells go off.

At this point, he'll likely back off startled in the "approach/avoidance dance. " And remember: the last thing that happened is the dog got startled, so the negative impression is most likely what will be recalled in future encounters.

In this state of mind, the dog cannot learn to like the stranger and there's no progress in teaching him to like strangers.

Alternate Options for Creating Positive Associations

So how can you create positive associations with strangers when they trigger this response when they try giving treats?

It's far preferable if the owner would give out food at the sight of the stranger, or if the stranger can be briefed in tossing the food past the dog instead of letting the dog come so close as to startle him. The treat-retreat game can be helpful in this case.

For safety, it's best to hire a behavior professional to guide you through the process to make sure your dog is under threshold and not being overwhelmed by the experience while keeping others safe considering that fearful dogs may even defensively bite in some circumstances.

Dog Approach Avoidance

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on March 24, 2014:

Very interesting article. We've had dogs like this and we had to work with them to help them out of it.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 23, 2014:

Thanks Heidithorne and grand old lady! Your comments are much appreciated!

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on March 23, 2014:

The information is useful as well as the video you selected. The part in the video about caution shown by standing on four feet while examining the bone was quite interesting. Very enjoyable hub.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 23, 2014:

Very useful information for both owners and those who want to approach strange dogs! I've seen some of this with my dogs on occasion. Voted up, useful & interesting!

The Role of Fear

Avoidance behaviors are symptoms of some kind of fear. This can include fears such as the fear of rejection, the fear of looking foolish, the fear of success, the fear of failure and the fear of a perceived physical or mental pain.

These fears are known as irrational fears, and are things which you have learned to fear as a result of a past association which you have made (i.e. classical conditioning).

When these fears are examined however, you will often discover that they don’t really pose a threat to your physical safety, even though you are reacting as if they really do. Hence why such fears are called irrational fears.

Botanophobia is an irrational fear of plants. Many of the fears that we hold are also “irrational” because there is little or no chance of the thing we fear harming us.

The significance of all this is that the more you fear something the more likely you are to try to avoid it, even if what you fear doesn’t actually exist or exists differently to how you imagined it.

As fear is also something that grows the more you try to hide from it, the best thing that you can do to stop such fears from controlling your life is to confront them head on.

It’s a natural human reaction to hide from the things we fear. When it comes to procrastination, this fear manifests itself as avoidance behavior.

When you do something that you fear you will often discover that what you imagined would happen turns out to be far worse than what actually did happen, and so by doing the things you fear, you eventually train yourself not to fear them anymore or to fear them less.

This in turn, will make it much less likely for you to engage in avoidance behaviors, thereby giving you more power to stop them when they occur.

To help you with this process, try to practice the following steps the next time you find yourself engaging in distracting behaviors.

1) Decide what it is you need to do, your primary task.

2) Think about any fears, worries or anxieties you have relating to your primary task.

3) Determine what is the worst thing that can happen for each of your fears. Is it really that bad?

4) Start working on your primary task at the earliest opportunity, no matter how small of a start you make.

The purpose of steps 2 and 3 is to identify the things you fear. This is important because fears that have been learned through past association will occur automatically and without you even thinking about them.

But, if you are able to examine those fears, you will engage the thinking part of your brain known as the neocortex which allows you to logically and rationally analyze a given situation.

In this frame of mind, you will be much more likely to successfully control your fears, and determine whether they are actually something which you should be fearing.

When responding to fear, we tend to react in an automatic manner controlled by the unconscious regions of the brain. By using the conscious part of your brain however, you can start to control your fears rather than having them control you.

You may also be able to use your fears to your advantage. For example, if something bad might happen as a result of you not starting your task, then you can use that concern to motivate you to start your task as soon as possible.

Alternatively, you may want to think about the benefits of completing your task and the relief that you will experience when it is over.

Which strategy will be effective for you largely depends on whether you are predominantly motivated by the avoidance of pain (i.e. avoiding a bad future outcome caused by not doing your task) or whether you are predominantly motivated by the prospect of a future pleasure (i.e. the benefits of completing your work).

We are all motivated towards pleasure and away from pain, but sometimes pain can be used to bring more pleasure at a later date.

The last step of this process, step 4, is the most important, because once you make a start on something it then becomes much easier to keep on doing it because you allow yourself to build momentum.

You will also find that starting your task will result in the dissipation of many of your fears, because most of the things that we fear or worry about never actually happen.

Whatever you do, avoid delaying or postponing your task to a later date, because that will only intensify the fears that you are experiencing and cause you to delay your task further by engaging in more avoidance behaviors.

Behavior Modification in Dogs

, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECAWBM, North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic

The techniques used most commonly to modify dog behavior include habituation, extinction, desensitization, counterconditioning, response substitution, and shaping. A behavior modification technique called flooding, described below, is not used very often because it is more likely to make animals worse. While it is claimed that punishment is frequently used with varying degrees of success, few people use punishment correctly. For punishment (such as screaming at the dog) to be successful, it must occur at the beginning of the behavior,be consistently delivered, and be strong enough to stop the unwanted behavior. Most punishments are not given at the right time or are not the appropriate type for the situation. "Dominance" training techniques that encourage owners to assert leadership through physical confrontations are also not recommended. Multiple studies have shown that training based on punishments or confrontations are more likely to lead to fear, avoidance, and increased aggression. Dogs trained with rewards have fewer behavioral problems and are less fearful.

New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior

The importance of knowing your dog as the individual they are

I'm a fan of all people who choose to bring a dog into their homes and hearts taking the time to become amateur ethologists and spending time becoming "fluent in dog." This really isn't asking too much, because when we make this decision we become their caregivers and they assume we have their best interests in mind from "cradle to grave," the cradle begins when we welcome them into our lives.

Learning about dog behavior, even some of the basic rudiments of why they do what they do, is not only fun, but also can be used to know how they're feeling. It's also an excellent way to learn about individual behavioral variability, even among littermates, and to use this information on the individual's behalf. Those who carefully watch, train, and treat dogs for various psychological and medical conditions know that there is no individual being we can accurately call "the dog," and generalizations often fail when an individual's background and personality are ignored (for more discussion please see "My Own Dog Is an Idiot, but She’s a Lovable Idiot" and Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do).

Because of my own interests in "all things dog" and behavior in particular, I was very pleased to learn of a new study by Ana Luisa Lopes Fagundes and her colleagues called "Noise Sensitivities in Dogs: An Exploration of Signs in Dogs with and without Musculoskeletal Pain Using Qualitative Content Analysis." The entire piece is available online as is a brief and adequate easy-to-read summary titled "Dogs with noise sensitivity should be routinely assessed for pain by vets." The latter essay begins, "Dogs which (sic) show fear or anxiety when faced with loud or sudden noises should be routinely assessed for pain by veterinarians, a new study has found." The noises that can trigger behavioral responses such as fear and anxiety range from "fireworks, thunderstorms and aeroplanes, to gunshots, cars and motorbikes."

To study the relationship between noise sensitivity and pain, the researchers examined the clinical records of 20 dogs at the University of Lincoln (UK). The data set was comprised of 10 “clinical cases” of dogs exhibiting neuromuscular pain and 10 “control cases” of dogs who did not show any pain. Both groups were similar in breed and age. It's hypothesized that noises that make dogs startle may cause muscles to tense and this can exacerbate pain. Lead researcher Ana Luisa Lopes Fagundes notes, "The aim of the study was to explore the presenting signs of dogs with generalised noise sensitivity with and without pain in their muscles or joints. We think that dogs with this sort of chronic pain may experience the noise quite differently, because if the noise makes them startle it may cause them to tense their muscles and as consequence they feel pain associated with the noise."

Age of onset of behavioral responses to pain is important to consider. The researchers learned that the average age of onset of noise sensitivity was nearly four years later in the “clinical cases.” They write, "This strong theme of an older age of onset suggests that the pain may develop later in life and that owners seek treatment more readily, perhaps because the appearance of the problem is out of character in the subject." Knowing this means that the humans have a good idea of what is typical behavior for their dog(s), and this means that they have previously watched them carefully.

The researchers also note that one marker of pain is that dogs might generalize noise sensitivity to a wider environment and this might prompt their humans to seek medical attention. In the summary we read, "In both cases, the presenting signs of the dogs' behavioural issue included shaking, trembling and hiding, but those with a diagnosed pain issue also showed a higher level of avoidance when it came to places they had a bad experience with noise - for example attempting to avoid a certain area at a park altogether compared with those without pain." Dogs in pain also avoided other dogs.

Becoming fluent in dog: The importance of knowing your dog and watching them carefully

Clearly, to know what a dog is feeling it is essential to know them as an individual. What's a loud or disturbing noise for one dog might not be for another dog. Among the many dogs with whom I share my home, there was great variation. A couple were truly scared of thunder, whereas some didn't show any response at all. One dog trembled when there were sirens, while others weren't affected at all. I did note that as my canine companion Jethro aged, he became more sensitive to sounds, and I knew that he was suffering from a neuroma near the base of his tail. However, I never thought that his heightened sensitivity to noises might have been related to the pain from which he suffered but didn't display behaviorally. Along these lines the researchers note, "It is also possible that the presence of a musculoskeletal pain focus and sound sensitivity interact to lower reactivity thresholds to related stimuli."

When people take the time to become amateur ethologists and citizen scientists they can acquire skills that can truly benefit the dogs with whom they share their lives. It's a win-win for all, and the current study shows just how important it is to pay careful attention to changes in behavior because they can be reliable indicators of pain that might otherwise go undiagnosed. And the good news, according to the researchers about whose work I'm writing, is, "Prognosis seems to be excellent if the case is properly managed following the identification of the role of pain."

Far too many dogs don't get what they want and need in a human-dominated world (for more discussion please see "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us"). They depend on us to know what they want and what they need, perhaps especially when they're suffering and in pain. We are obliged to do so.

Why Do Dogs Growl?

Growling is one way your dog communicates with you. It growls to let you know that it's afraid, in pain, or needs for you to back away from its possessions or territory. Often your first instinct is to run from a growling dog or to punish it for growling. Because growling can be the first sign of more serious aggression, it's important to handle a growling dog appropriately.

Your dog is trying to tell you something when it growls. Growling is a sign of an underlying problem. Rather than teaching your dog not to growl, it's vital that you determine the reason why the dog is growling and address that issue. Once the underlying problem has been dealt with, it's likely the growling will be reduced or eliminated altogether.

Several situations can cause your dog to growl. If your dog is growling as a reaction to pain or illness, you may notice that it only growls when certain parts of its body are touched.   The dog may also show other symptoms of illness or injury, such as decreased appetite, lethargy, weight loss, biting or licking specific areas of its body, or hair loss. The solution to the problem of a dog that growls because of pain or illness is to immediately call your veterinarian. The proper medical treatment should alleviate the pain, which should lessen or stop the growling.

If your dog typically growls at strangers, specific people, such as children or men, or when the dog is in an unfamiliar place, the growls are most likely due to fear. A dog may also growl in situations that trigger fears, such as during thunderstorms or fireworks displays. Some aggressive dogs may be ill and suffering from an anxiety disorder.   If you can determine the cause of the fear, the natural course of action is to remove it (if possible) from the dog's life. If determining the cause or removing the cause seems impossible, reach to a behavior specialist for help.

Watch the video: Is Your Dog Asserting Dominance? - Understanding Dominant Dog Behavior (October 2021).

Video, Sitemap-Video, Sitemap-Videos