Learned helplessness is the condition where a dog has been repeatedly exposed to a scary stimulus and has learned he no longer has control over the adverse situation. The dog shuts down and becomes helpless, knowing he can’t change the outcome.
What is Learned Helplessness?
Dogs either fight or flight when they encounter a scary trigger. However, there’s a new response I’m seeing more and more of during my dog training sessions. It’s freeze or shut down. Dogs that have learned to become helpless basically giving up, flop over, and hope the scary trigger goes away and doesn’t hurt them.
People see the dog giving up and mistakenly assume the dog has learned to stay still or behave. Oh, but it’s far from it.
Can you imagine being so scared, your entire body shuts down, you go limp, you roll over and you wish with everything you have that the scary thing would leave you alone? Wow. That’s terrible right!?
Well, I’m seeing an increasing amount of learned helplessness in dogs introduced to scary triggers. Many times, dogs shut down at the vet’s office, on a groomer’s table, or during class because they’re so confused or scared that they simply give up. People see the dog giving up and mistakenly assume the dog has learned to stay still or behave. Oh, but it’s far from it. The dog was pushed way too far.
What Does a Shut Down Dog Look Like?
When dogs shut down, they usually become frustrated and display calming and appeasement signals. Dogs will usually begin with subtle versions of calming signals to indicate they’re confused and scared. If the scary stimulus continues, their calming signals become more apparent, such as an increase in panting, salivation and sometimes vocalization. You may also notice their:
- Tails tucked between their legs
- Ears pinned back against their head
- Body weight shrinks backwards
- Bodies flop on the floor and become very still
What Causes Learned Helplessness in Dogs?
Any number of triggers can cause a dog to shut down, including:
- Loud echo
- Sound of a clicker
- Other dogs being too close
- Strange smell (we may never discover this one)
- Chronic anxiety caused from past experiences during dog training
- Combination of triggers
Shutting Down vs. Learning a Incompatible Behavior
Let’s be crystal clear here. There’s a major difference between shutting down and learning an incompatible behavior—huge difference. Teaching an incompatible behavior means teaching a dog to sit instead of jump or target your hand instead of pulling on a leash.
The dog has a choice in this situation, and is a willing participant in the learning process. Shutting down means the dog is not a willing participant in the learning process, and is so confused he gives up and flops on the floor wishing you (or whatever the stimulus causing him to shut down) goes away.
How to Prevent Dogs From Shutting Down
Whether you’re a dog trainer or dog owner, it’s so important to become fluent in dog body language and notice the nuances before the dog becomes stressed. The moment you notice your dog is stressed by a trigger, look at your dog’s environment for the trigger. What is causing your dog to stress out? Once you identify it, remove it.
If a dog is stressed with another dog too close, ask the other dog to move away from the stressed dog. If the trigger is a loud sound, move the scared dog further away from the sound or use visual barriers to calm a stressed dog.
While some stress is a good thing and is actually needed during the learning process, we’re talking about beyond normal stress levels that border into anxiety here. When you’re stressed or anxious, you can’t learn. It’s impossible. Think about it: If you’re scared of spiders and I hold a tarantula about 3 feet from you while teaching you how to recite Shakespeare, would you remember a word I said? Bingo, that’s the feeling right before you shut down. 🙂
If Your Dog Doesn’t Recover
If a stressed dog becomes even more frantic when triggers are removed, take your dog outside for a walk or remove him from the situation. Then, try to identify exactly what caused him to shut down.
If you’re a dog trainer, ask the owner to step outside the session with her dog and come back to watch until the session ends. Afterwards, ask the owner to list out any known triggers that cause anxiety and begin a simple desensitization program for each trigger. Begin slowly and remember desensitization always works. If it’s not working, it’s not being done right, so take a deeper look at the process. When in doubt, split a behavior, which means make it even simpler.
If, at anytime, a dog becomes worse or does not improve, I recommend partnering with a qualified animal behaviorist.
How do you prevent a dog from shutting down? I want to hear from you. 🙂
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