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Learned Helplessness

There are two words out there that many dog owners and trainers throw about in the intent to incite fear and create an emotional response in humans. These words are learned helplessness.

Often times these words are used by trainers and owners who are against the use of training tools such as E-collars or prong collars and strictly believe that the only way to train a dog is by using purely positive training methods.

These methods typically lack two of the four quadrants of learning in operant conditioning and make things such as working with thresholds in dog training very difficult.

Nevertheless these individuals throw out words such as learned helplessness in order to insight fear among dog owners, they will typically say things along the lines of “if you correct your dog for bad behavior they will develop learned helplessness.”

“Learned helplessness is a very real issue that many dogs struggle with and no respectable trainer would ever desire to put a dog in a state of learned helplessness.”

This statement could not be further from the truth, and if you continue reading this article you will see why.

In order to talk about learned helplessness and what causes it we first need to understand what it is.

Learned helplessness is when a dog enters a state where they do not wish to display any behaviors for fear of punishment, ultimately these dogs shutdown and are unwilling to perform basic obedience commands even when food and rewards are presented to them.

The dog learns that the only way to avoid punishment is by shutting down and becoming helpless, thus the name learned helplessness.  

Learned helplessness is a very real issue that many dogs struggle with and no respectable trainer would ever desire to put a dog in a state of learned helplessness.

Now that we understand what learned helplessness is, let us explore the various causes of it in dogs.

Many people assume that by correcting a dog for inappropriate behavior a dog will eventually slide into learned helplessness, this is not the case if a correction is given properly.

A correction that is given properly in dog training will be timed at the moment that a dog is exhibiting the undesirable behavior, it will be clear to the dog that the behavior they displayed caused the correction, the correction will be consistent, and the owner communicates with the dog via the use of a marker.

The absence of these factors is what has the potential to create learned helplessness.

“This inconsistency is by and large one of the biggest factors that causes learned helplessness, however it is not the only factor that drives a dog into learned helplessness.”

When dogs are faced with negative consequences inconsistently and they are unable to draw conclusions as to what creates that negative consequence then they will shut down as an only response.

The best example to use for this is a stove top. If you touch a hot stove you will learn not to touch the stove when it is on and hot, but you will still use the stove as you know what to expect and how to avoid getting burned.

Now if you use a stove that burns you when you touch the knob one day, then it burns you for touching the handle the next, and then you get burned for just walking next to the stove, you will soon start to avoid the stove all together.

As you can see corrections by themselves do not create learned helplessness, however inconsistent corrections with little guidance to the dog will create learned helplessness.

Corrections of this type are outright abusive and serve no purposes in dog training whatsoever.

This inconsistency is by and large one of the biggest factors that causes learned helplessness, however it is not the only factor that drives a dog into learned helplessness.

Rewarding a dog for shutting down can increase a dog’s chances of developing learned helplessness. The biggest example of this is of a dog who is afraid of fireworks or thunder, the dog begins to freak out and cowers in fear to which owners will try to comfort the dog.

This reinforces that learned helpless behavior, rather than comforting the dog owners should try to engage with the dog via play or giving the dog known obedience commands in order to get the dog out of that fear state of mind.

Another factor that contributes to learned helplessness is an absence of piggy bank theory, which is an important theory to understand when raising a young puppy or building a relationship with a new dog.

So now that we know what causes learned helplessness what training can be done to help a dog get out of that mindset? I once worked with a dog that suffered from severe learned helplessness, she was so messed up that when I entered the room she would run to the corner and pee herself.

Like many dogs that develop learned helplessness she refused to take treats or rewards of any kind. The owner was unable to move the dog from the corner and would try pulling the dog with a lease, to which the dog fought back due to opposition reflex.

 

“You see a dog that has developed learned helplessness believes that any action they take will result in a negative consequence.”

,I was able to put a fitted prong collar on her and begin training. I walked to the extent of my leash and bent down as small as possible and made as little noise as possible, I then began to apply slight pressure using the prong collar, almost immediately she responded to the pressure by moving a few inches closer to me, I then backed up and repeated the process.

After a few more times she was learning the pressure of the collar and I began walking around the house. I continued this exercise for about 30 minutes. By the end of the exercise she was following me around the house and taking treats from my hand.

You see a dog that has developed learned helplessness believes that any action they take will result in a negative consequence. By getting the dog to walk around and follow me she learned that no negative consequences would happen and when her body started moving her mind soon began to follow.

Once her mind began to realize she was safe, and she could do things without fear, she began to take treats and rewards and start her path onto a new life.

Oddly enough the same tool that is condemned by many as the cause of learned helplessness was the saving grace that this dog needed to thrive.

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