Learned Helplessness

scared german shepherd pixabay smallBob and Molly have a female spaniel mix named Ginger. Ginger is known to have fear issues, specifically, a fear of Bob. This Bob-o-phobia is not due to his ever having done anything terrible to her; it’s been this way ever since she was adopted. In the house, she runs from Bob, and will stay out of the room he’s in whenever possible. If gated in a room with him she shows signs of anxiety, pacing restlessly, unable to sit still, constantly darting worried glances in his direction. However, if Ginger is on a leash with Bob when they sit in the living room watching television at night, the couple says Ginger is totally calm. But is she really?

Ginger is displaying what is known as “learned helplessness.” This happens when a dog has learned that there is nothing they can do to escape a frightening situation. Whereas Ginger’s first instinct would have been to avoid Bob by leaving the room or keeping her distance, those options have been removed. When tethered to or forced to be in the room with the thing she fears, she knows she can’t escape or avoid it, so she doesn’t fight. She shuts down. Bob and Molly are not mean people. They simply do not understand the depths of Ginger’s fear, or what her behavior really means.

The story of how learned helplessness in dogs was discovered is not pretty. In the late 60s and early 70s, scientists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted experiments where they would ring a bell and then shocked the dog, in order to determine whether the dog would eventually anticipate that the sound of the bell predicted a shock. Of course, it did. In the next set of experiments, they placed a dog into a box with two chambers divided by a low barrier. One side of the box was electrified and would deliver a painful shock. Without going into details of the experiment, what surprised the men was that the dogs who had learned in the previous experiment that there was no escaping being shocked would now simply lay down on the electrified side, making no attempt to get away. In other words, they shut down, resigned to the pain. The dogs who had not previously been shocked ran to the non-electrified side, thereby escaping the pain.

Those experiments were clearly barbaric. But no less barbaric in my mind is what went on at a workshop a friend of mine attended, given by a “trainer” who is known to use shock collars to modify behaviors from aggression to jumping up on people to having potty accidents (yes, shock collars on puppies). Like me, my friend does not use nor condone the use of shock collars, but she wanted to see for herself what actually went on. One after another, the dogs were brought up to the front of the room, and the dogs were goaded into demonstrating their problematic behaviors. Time after time, a shock collar was placed on the dog, and a high-level shock was administered. And guess what? Without fail, each and every dog stopped the unwanted behavior instantly. Was this amazing? Impressive? An instant cure-all? No. Not even close. It was a demonstration of ignorance on the part of the trainer and learned helplessness on the part of the dog. Those dogs knew damned well that if they jumped (or lunged, or barked) again, they would experience pain and fear. So, they just sat there, laid there, or in some cases stood there shaking. But the behavior had stopped instantly, and if you didn’t know better, you might believe the dogs were perfectly calm and the problem had been solved. Learned helplessness strikes again.

Helping fearful dogs has been close to my heart for a long time. For years, I worked with wolves and wolfdogs in the rescue center I co-ran in southern California. Wolves are naturally afraid of people, and many of our residents had to learn to trust us. I also worked for many years in the L.A. shelter system with hundreds of dogs, many of whom were fearful, and later with clients’ dogs who had fear issues. In fact, when I was writing Help for Your Fearful Dog, I intended it to be a much shorter book than the 400-plus pages it ended up as, but each time I thought it was finished, there was yet another fear-producing stimulus I felt the need to add a chapter about. But regardless of what a dog is afraid of, techniques like flooding, where the dog is forced to face his fear, or harsh punishment, is not the answer and does not solve the underlying problem.

The other issue with learned helplessness is that it’s the unwanted gift that keeps giving. These are the dogs who can have trouble learning new skills, because they are afraid to make a mistake. They are certainly a far cry from the happy, confident dogs who not only comply with requests, but offer behaviors in the hopes of being rewarded. But much worse than simply being less trainable at times, these dogs are anxious, worried, and insecure, afraid to do something for which they may be punished. That chronic stress can impact their health, and certainly does not make for a happy life. If the public were better educated that a dog who is forced to face his fears or is the victim of a painful aversive is not being calm but is simply giving up, there would be less use of flooding and other cruel “training” techniques, and the world would be a better place for dogs.
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11 Responses to Learned Helplessness

  1. Good article. But I THINK you meant to write ‘Bob and Molly are not men people’ in paragraph 2

  2. I remember learning about that experience in the intro to psych class I took.

  3. Reblogged this on MLO Pet Sitting and commented:
    Nicole Wilde is such an inspiration to me. I got to attend one of her workshops in North Carolina years ago and I learned so much from her!!

  4. Judy says:

    So, what should they do to help the dog not be afraid of Bob?

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Judy, there’s actually a whole chapter in my “Help for Your Fearful Dog” dedicated to fear of a particular family member. Perhaps I’ll do a separate blog post about the subject.

  5. Laura says:

    Wait, so I have one dog that is super loving and happy all of the time. She spreads out when she sleeps and wags her tail in huge circles (which I heard is a sign of a happy, carefree dog). My other dog, is a constant stress ball. He falls asleep on his belly with his legs tucked under him… he is very shy and you can actually see the anxiety in his face. The happy one came from a breeder that treated them as family members and I’m sad to say my anxious baby probably came from a puppy mill. Am I doing something wrong with him? They are treated the same. I don’t want him to be sad 😞

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Laura, I’m sorry to hear that your boy is anxious. If he’s from a puppy mill, it is likely that genetics and lack of early socialization could have something to do with his behavior. That doesn’t mean you can’t help him to make progress, even though he might not ever be as happy-go-lucky as your other dog. He can still be the best HIM he can be. My entire book “Help for Your Fearful Dog” is about what you can do to help him. I truly wish you the best with him, I know how difficult it can be to want to help a dog who seems less than comfortable in this world.

  6. Lisa says:

    I have a fearful dog. She was a foster pup returned to me 1.5 yrs later terrified of everything. She has overcome all her fears except meeting new people. Making her unadoptable and now mine. She takes prozac daily, goes for a walk with my pack everyday 2-3 miles. She loves to play with squeeky toys snuggle on the sofa and chew on bones in the yard. She is friendly and engaging until someone comes to visit. I let her watch from a safe place the visitor interact with my dogs. They are asked to go to her give a treat and quick pet. She used to poop herself…now she just shakes a bit. I do not know how to proceed. Am i doing the right thing? I do not want to loose her trust by flooding her. Help

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Lisa, I’m glad she has a good forever home with you. 🙂 As far as visitors, I would not ask them to go and give her a treat and a pet. It’s too much for her, if she’s not comfortable with it, which it sounds like she’s not. A better plan would be for YOU to go and give her treats whenever a visitor comes, so that she begins to associate visitors with something good. I would save your super best, never-gets-these kinds of treats for these visits. I would do this in her safe place or bed away from the door (wherever you have her now, so long as it’s away from the door) so that she begins to run to this place when visitors come. I realize you’d like for her to eventually be okay with visitors and go greet them, etc. I don’t know your dog so I can’t say, but that may or may not ever happen. It would be good for you to work with a trainer one on one if you can afford it. The APDT, PPG, and IAABC are places you can check for trainers who should be using positive, gentle methods. (Always interview them first just to be sure.) Good luck with your girl. 🙂

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