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Understanding Learned Helplessness in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Learned helplessness affects dogs who have been subjected to repeated punishment, with little opportunity to "get things right"

Learned helplessness affects dogs who have been subjected to repeated punishment, with little opportunity to "get things right"

What Is Learned Helplessness in Dogs?

Learned helplessness is a psychological state during which an animal or human has learned through experience to give up and behave in a helpless way despite the fact that they have the chance to avoid unpleasant circumstances in the first place. This psychological state was studied in 1967 by American psychologist Martin Seligman when he conducted some experiments involving dogs.

In the experiment, the animals were repeatedly subjected to pain that could not be escaped. They were basically classically conditioned to expect shock after hearing a tone. When these dogs were then placed in a shuttle box divided into two chambers by a low barrier, the dogs made no attempts to escape, even though all it took was a jump over the barrier.

To further investigate this phenomenon, more experiments were carried out. Dogs were divided into three groups; one group comprised dogs who were strapped into harnesses and then released, another group comprised dogs strapped into harnesses and subjected to shock that could have been stopped by pressing a panel (escape-avoidance training), and another group finally comprised dogs who were receiving shock at random times and couldn't control its duration.

When the dogs were placed in a shuttle box divided into two areas, the dogs in the first and second groups quickly figured out that jumping out of the barrier helped then avoid the shock. The dogs in the third group instead just gave up and never tried to get away from the painful shocks. This helplessness and failure to escape were similar to those observed in people suffering from chronic clinical depression.

However, Pratt (1980) suggested that it was most likely that Seligman's dogs were more similar to trauma victims rather than depressed people. The dogs may have failed to react because they were paralyzed by fear and terror or it was more of a learned response where the dogs through experience just gave up trying since attempts were futile in the past.

Maier and Seligman (1976) further thought that perhaps the inescapable shock caused so much stress that dogs were depleted from a neurochemical needed by the animals for movement. For more on how dogs react to stress read the "fight or flight response in dogs.'' They also thought that in order for learned helplessness to occur, the dogs had to be A) exposed to a traumatic experience and B) be unable to escape from such traumatic experience (control over their environment).

According to Lindsay, the inescapable shock had dramatic effects that interfered with learning. In further trials, even the dogs who were successful in escaping were so negatively affected that they were unable to repeat the behavior.


How It Affects Dogs

The following paragraph will depict some cases where learned helplessness occurs. Often, people do not realize that what looks like "good behavior" is really a state of learned helplessness.

Imagine a teacher in class asking her scholars a question. A child raises her hand in excitement and answers. The teacher says the answer is incorrect. Next, the teacher asks another question and the child again raises her hand, sure that this time she will get it right. Instead, the teacher again proves her wrong.

Repeat this several times and you will soon notice that the child will start raising her hand less and less. In the end, she may just give up trying, even if she's positive she knows the right answer. In humans, learned helplessness often affects self-esteem; indeed, people who have been embarrassed enough times in social situations may just start closing themselves in their shells, talk less and may seek out social interactions less and less. In dogs, it affects their expression of behavior.

Puppies are born as blank slates that are naturally trusting and eager to learn. Unfortunately, negative experiences may affect them causing future aloof, suspicious behaviors. It's astounding the number of trainers who have started using shock collars to train young puppies with a simple command like a recall.

Puppies are very easy to train, they're fresh, with yet no ingrained behaviors. They do exceptionally well with positive reinforcement.

The use of shock in puppies and dogs, especially with no previous escape/avoidance training (helping the puppy figure out which behaviors he needs to perform to stop the shock) may lead to a state where dogs may appear very tentative and may be scared to offer any new behaviors in fear that it may lead to punishment. Often this fear of interacting with the environment is confused by the untrained eye with a well-trained dog "who behaves."

Nicole Wilde explains this beautifully, she claims "There’s a definite difference between a dog whose body language says, 'Okay, I get it, you don’t want me to do that' and still looks bright and happy, and one whose light has been extinguished. The latter is unutterably sad to witness."

Many professional trainers and behaviorists who use science-based training oppose to using adversarial and confrontational training methods. Cesar Millan is notorious for making the public believe that with his magical touch, he can tame the wildest dogs. In reality, what he is doing is subjecting the dog to a state of learned helplessness. The dogs give up, giving the illusion of behaving when in reality they are in a subdued state of stress and fear!


How to Deal With Learned Helplessness in Dogs

So how do you deal with a dog who has been a victim of this? If you have a dog who seems to act subdued and is scared of interacting with the environment, you may want to help him become more confident.

The process is very gradual and takes time. However, it's also true that it's very rewarding. Keep in mind that it's often easy to label a dog just rescued from the shelter as shy, subdued and insecure. Often, you may wonder if the dog has been neglected and mistreated. Often, though, as these dogs get more acquainted with their new environment, they come out of their shell and show their true colors. Dog professionals have a name for this "the honeymoon period'. Basically, these dogs may act in certain ways the first few days and then act totally different once they "settle in."

So how do you help a dog that is very tentative in engaging and insecure? I have had good success using clicker training. I have seen tentative dogs bloom under my eyes as they discovered the bliss of how interacting with their environment provided them with rewards. And I must say that watching them come out of their shell is very rewarding for me as well.

As Nicole Wilde puts it, by working on encouraging behavior we can "change learned helplessness into learned joyfulness."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 10, 2013:

Ladydeonne, thanks for stopping by! We really don't apply it, it's a state dogs fall into and that need help. Thanks for the votes up and share!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 10, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by emshappyk9s!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 10, 2013:

Thanks Eiddwen for sharing. As always, thanks for stooping by!

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on June 10, 2013:

Applying Martin Seligman's Learned Helplessness Theory as a means of working with dogs in distress or those that have been abused is genius. We all know that dogs suffer from depression and separation anxiety. I had forgotten that they can also fall prey to Learned Helplessness. Great hub.

Voted up and shared.

Emily Scott from Clovis CA on June 09, 2013:

Well written, thank you.

Eiddwen from Wales on June 09, 2013:

Brilliant and sharing onto my family.

So well presented and interesting.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 08, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Bob. Love the learned helplessness example you provided!

Bob Bamberg on June 08, 2013:

Very interesting concept, alexadry. Learned helplessness could explain why dogs so often seem oblivious to the simple and obvious solution to a dilemma they're facing. I should think it is common for owners to inadvertently instill the condition when training their dogs.

The condition can also explain the part of the jobs report where economists and analysts say that the numbers don't account for the people who have just given up and withdrew from the job market.

Voted up, useful and interesting.