Did it ever happen to you to be almost irresistibly drawn to something, yet fear it somehow? Perhaps, cold feet before a wedding or an urge to watch horror movies no matter how scary? In dogs these conflicting emotions tend to happen quite often in what is called approach avoidance conflict. You might therefore see your dog cautiously advance and stretch to inspect something, but at the same time you can tell from his body language that he's ready to withdraw at a moment's notice. What's going on? As much as it may seem like your dog has an ambivalent personality, this approach/avoidance strategy can be considered quite adaptive, meaning that it's something that has helped dogs survive throughout the centuries; however, as with everything, too much of a good thing can become problematic.
A Closer Look
If your dog seems to be the canine personification of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, rest assured you are not alone. Countless doggies may give the impression of dying to go meet somebody one second, and then act fearfully or even defensive, the next. What's going on?
These dogs are basically the poster child of approach-avoidance behaviors, approaching and then retreating in what seems to resemble an ambiguity dance.
It's almost as if these dogs are unable to make a decision on whether that "somebody" should be categorized as a friend or foe. However, most likely there's more going on beyond a rational level and there may likely be instinctive behaviors intertwined.
It may be that perhaps the dog is drawn to a person because he may have stored somewhere in his brain that similar encounters may have produced positive results or the dog may be just plain curious.
Yet, he may be tentative in embracing a new experience because of a past negative experience or it may be that it's just plain instinct at play taking over. This therefore triggers the need to proceed with caution, slowly and carefully, an inch at a time. Displacement behaviors such as barking or whining, can also be seen in such conflicting situations, explains Jean Donaldson, in the book "Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker."
"Approach avoidance occurs when the behavioral goal is both attractive and aversive." ~Steven Lindsay (2000)
A History of Reinforcement
Both approach and avoidance behaviors may be backed up by a history of reinforcement. Reinforcement occurs when behaviors tend to repeat and strengthen.
If the dog in the past approached people and the encounter ended positively such as the person giving the dog a cookie or doing something else that the dog likes, the behavior of approaching is positively reinforced. This means that the dog will likely be open to greeting people more and more in future encounters as the dog feels rewarded from engaging in such encounters.
Just like dogs, people also tend to repeat actions that were positively reinforced. If you love to shop, and last time you went shopping to a particular store you found great deals, you'll likely want to go to shopping at that store more and more.
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However, if in the past, the dog approached people and the encounter ended negatively such as the person suddenly sneezing or doing something else that the dog perceives as scary (eg. looming over him or patting him on the head), the behavior of backing away and withdrawing is negatively reinforced. This means that the dog will likely withdraw more and more in future encounters as the dog feels relieved from withdrawing from such scary or unpleasant encounters..phew!....
Just like dogs, people also tend to repeat actions that were negatively reinforced. If you hate being stuck in traffic, you may learn to take a short cut by taking a secondary road to cut through and reach your destination faster. By taking the shortcut, you'll likely feel great relief and you'll likely feel tempted to take the short cut more and more in the future.
"Approach motivation is the energization of behavior by, or the direction of behavior toward, positive stimuli (objects, events, possibilities), whereas avoidance motivation is the energization of behavior by, or the direction of behavior away from, negative stimuli (objects, events, possibilities). ~Andrew J. Elliot
Between Opposing Forces
What happens when a dog is drawn to something and yet at the same time is fearful? Conflict arises. Conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces. So the dog is respectively drawn and repelled to a stimulus at the same time.
For instance, from a distance a stranger may appear desirable, but then as the dog gets closer to the person, he or she appears less desirable and even a tad bit scary causing the dog to approach and then withdraw.
For a good reason many dog trainers and behavior consultants object to having strangers directly hand food out to your dog. The dog is leery of the stranger, but then the treat he is offering is oh, so tempting! His nose is drawn to the outstretched hand holding the treat, yet his body is screaming to be cautious. So Rover ends up tentatively approaching and then stretching his neck, but in the meanwhile he's realizing how close he is to the stranger, so he may back off startled.
Since this fearful reaction is the last thing that happened, this negative impression is what's likely going to be remembered in any future encounters, so there's ultimately little to no progress in liking or trusting strangers this way.
"When a dog has both reason to avoid and reason to approach something or someone, she will probably vacillate back and forth between affiliative, aggressive and appeasement signals... The behavior of a motivationally conflicted dog can be a risky situation for a person interacting with the dog because the dog may go either way. If you make a wrong move, the dog could shift into aggressive behaviors."~ James O' Heare
An Example of Approach Avoidance Conflict in Dog
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional behavioral advice. If your dog is manifesting behavioral problems, please be safe and consult with a professional.