(or learned helplessness)!
How many times have you heard a trainer comment “he just shuts down” or “he doesn’t like to work under this condition”?
What happens when a dog “shuts down”?
Shutting down is when a dog has stopped trying to do what is being asked because he has learned he is never right and cannot win in the situation. Imagine if every time you raised your hand and tried to answer a question in class your teacher screams at you “NO YOU ARE WRONG”. No matter how many ways or times you tried to answer the question, you were told that you were wrong and never told what the correct answer was. How many times would this happen before you would no longer attempted to try to answer even a simple question?
The most telling characteristics of a “shut down” dog are:
- A dog that is unresponsive to motivators and rewards. In other words, the dog will not play or interact with the trainer and rarely will eat treats.
- The dog’s posture is guarded and they may react slowly or not at all to commands and/or signals.
- The dog has checked out mentally i.e. “nothing at home” or “deer in the headlights” look.
- The dog might display stress signs such as lip licking or avoiding eye contact.
- Shut down is sometimes confused with “submission”.
It is important to note that a dog in a shutdown state is not necessarily exhibiting what is referred to as learned helplessness. However, for the purpose of this article, we are referring to learned helplessness.
What is Learned Helplessness in Dogs?
Learned helplessness is a psychological state that occurs when an animal has been repeatedly hurt either mentally or physically and has no way to escape or win. The dog shuts down, and in some cases is almost paralyzed or unresponsive. The ‘hurt” might be unintentionally caused by the trainer through progressing to rapidly in training, lack of communication of the concepts or inappropriate proofing.
Why am I talking about shut down and learned helplessness?
This is a huge training problem that, for the most part, can be avoided. Every time you unfairly punish, correct, or nag your dog you risk creating this behavior.
Some dogs that have learned to shutdown are permanently handicapped when learning new behaviors that require thought. The dog would rather not attempt to learn the new skill because of the fear of being incorrect. They view learning a new behavior is a bad thing, so they only offer what they consider is the “safe behavior” that is not trying or giving effort.
Here are the top errors that trainers make that teach their dog to give up or shut down!
Mistake #1: “Positive = permissive”
Today’s dog trainers are using more positive methods to teach skills and modify behaviors. While this is great, many trainers feel that all interactions with their dogs need to be purely positive. In other words, there is little to no consequence for the lack of effort or bad behavior. It is important for a dog to understand the difference between right and wrong. Equally important is that the dog has boundaries. Training starts with setting clear boundaries and controlling the resources in the dog’s life, which includes affection and play.
Mistake #2: Dependency on luring
As straightforward as luring can be, it can also cause problems. In the beginning stages, some dogs become too focused on the lure to think about what they’re doing. Another potential problem with luring is that some dogs become dependent on the lure, i.e. they become the “show me the money” dogs. These dogs will not perform until they know there is something in it for them. This is easier to prevent than it is to fix, but it’s certainly not going to ruin a dog if it happens. Preventing lure-dependency is as simple as not letting the lure become a pattern. Use your lure to help the dog get into position 3-5 times and then get it out of your hand. You’ve now switched from luring the dog (showing him what he could have ahead of time) to rewarding him (surprising him with something special after he does what you want).
Mistake #3: Poor timing
Timing is essential in dog training! Poor timing means you could be marking behaviors, right or wrong, inappropriately or rewarding the wrong behavior. Incorrect timing sends the wrong message and prolongs your dog’s ability to properly learn the skill. The old saying “timing is everything” was written for dog trainers!
Mistake #4: improper use of proofing
Proofing or testing your dog’s understanding of a skill under all circumstances, is extremely important if you want to have success when showing in any venue. Unfortunately many trainers believe in an all or nothing approach to proofing. It is important for a dog’s confidence that he understands understand how to “win” in a proofing scenario. If you are in a new location, attempting a new distraction or practicing a sequence of skills, make sure to explain how your dog can win if he has problems sorting out what to do.
Mistake #5: lack of consistency
The key to all training is consistency. If you’re not consistent, you are not going to get a good result. In addition, your dog will not know what to expect which will diminish his confidence. A leader needs the trust and respect of the dog. You want to make it as simple as possible for your dog to learn. The only way that will happen, is by being consistent. Sit means sit the first time you say it. The criteria needs to be the same each and every time. Inconsistency will only confuse your dog.
“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.” ― Anthony Robbins