Shut Down Dogs, Part 1

I recently wrote a post about the phrase “calm submissive” as promulgated by Cesar Millan.

I said that the phrase (actually Cesar) was misguided and confused. Not to mention wrong.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

And we can easily see what that portends for most dogs. “Calm submissive” is emphatically not about teaching a dog to relax or be calm. So today I am going to talk about the real state that many dogs are in when they seem to go really quiet: shut down.

A Group Delusion?

One of the things that repeatedly surprises me is when I see the “big-name” force trainers saying a dog is calm or relaxed when it takes absolutely no expertise at all to see that the dog is stiff and petrified. I do see the occasional reinforcement-based trainer not “getting” a dog’s body language or even causing it anxiety, and I sure miss obvious signals myself sometimes. But the force guys seem to have this obsession with “calm submissive” dogs and regularly see calm and relaxed where it absolutely doesn’t exist. I know this because they say so, and any of us can see the contrary.

It’s as if for someone who is interested in exerting total control over a dog, as long as the dog is being still, it is fulfilling its doggie role and being “good.” Since the trainer feels comfortable with this state of affairs, the dog must too. Is that the logic? But look, LOOK at the dog!

We mostly know what a relaxed dog looks like. But let’s let  Marge Rogers’ (and one of her clients’) ridgebacks show us.

This is going to be a two part series. Today’s post, Part 1, centers around some video I took of Zani several years back when she was in a frightened and unresponsive state. In Part 2 I’m really going to go for it and will show footage and stills of other dogs in shut down states, with trainers who are generally claiming that they are relaxed. I’ll contrast that with some video of dogs that actually are relaxed.

A black dog with tan on her face and front legs is seen to be sitting. She is looking down.

Zani shut down

Shut Down

What do I mean when I say a dog is shut down? First, I haven’t found a technical definition of the term. If there is one, hopefully some biologist or ethologist will tell me. (I’m not referring to learned helplessness. See below for that). I’m going to describe what I have gleaned from usage. The most telling characteristics to me of a shut down dog are:

  • the dog is unresponsive to many stimuli
  • their posture is protective of themselves and guarded
  • when spoken to or touched, the dog may react slowly or not at all
  • they frequently avoid eye contact
  • they may not even  be showing as many stress signals as one would expect, because they have “left the building.”
Zani fairly relaxed

Zani fairly relaxed

Dogs are often very still when shut down, but they also can be in motion. We see the latter commonly in shock trained dogs. Some scoot along robotically next to their trainers, with their entire affect suppressed and flattened. I am writing in emotional language here, but the things I am talking about can be clearly observed. And next time I’ll show you.

Learned Helplessness

It is important to note that a dog that is in a shut down state is not necessarily exhibiting learned helplessness. Learned helplessness has a scientific definition, and although animals in that state are shut down, the reverse is not true. All shut down animals are not in learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal has been repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus that it has learned that it can’t escape. Nothing works. The animal shuts down, and in some cases is almost paralyzed or catatonic.

When events are uncontrollable, the organism learns that its behavior and outcomes are independent. –Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence, 1976, Maier and Seligman

A world where behavior and outcomes are independent would be very scary.

When learned helplessness experiments were done to animals (including humans), there was a subsequent experiment where there was an opportunity to escape the aversive (shock in most cases). But the animals no longer even tried. Those who were subjected to these brutal experiments stayed shut down.

Here is the distinction between “mere” shutdown and learned helplessness: a dog who has been trained with shock, for instance, is not exhibiting learned helplessness if the training was successful. Such a dog has learned how to take action to avoid or turn the shock off most of the time at least. It may be shut down from the misery of its situation, but it is not in learned helplessness because it is performing behavior to make the shock or threat of shock end.

The Video

The video shows the aftermath of what appeared to me to be a very minor tiff between my then 18 month old hound mix Zani, and my senior rat terrier, Cricket. Zani was 18 lbs to Cricket’s 12 lbs. Cricket was a strong resource guarder of me and did not care for other dogs. The incident consisted of Zani walking too close to Cricket and me on the bed. Cricket air-snapped at her.

And then Zani apparently fell to pieces. She sat quietly on the edge of the bed, looking down, not moving for several minutes. After a while she got down on the floor and sat there for a good while. She started moving around after 15 or 20 minutes, but was subdued and avoided all interaction for more than an hour.

It was very surprising to me because Zani has always been a feisty little thing. She spent her first three months with me deliberately and repeatedly provoking my larger dog Summer to play with her. Summer doesn’t play very nicely, and the play always had an edge to it. Yet Zani started it again and again, and never acted afraid of Summer during play. (She did act afraid of her one time, as I talk about in “The Look of Fear.”)

I want to mention that in the video it’s clear that I didn’t handle the situation very well. This was several years ago. I was fascinated by Zani’s behavior but was not as sympathetic as I would be now. I filmed, and occasionally beckoned Zani (unsuccessfully) to get back up on the bed with me and Cricket. Since her behavior was apparently triggered by Cricket, this was an unreasonable expectation, and my beckoning increased the pressure on Zani. There was no advocacy for her, and I regret that. Nowadays I would leave Zani alone while I got Cricket out of there. Then I would come back and see whether Zani would like me to hang out with her or would rather be left alone for a while.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Missed Cues

I have a whole series of videos entitled “Dogs Notice Everything” on why a dog might miss a cue that we thought she knew. I am not trying to train Zani in today’s video, but it’s pretty clear that I wouldn’t get much response if I did. And it would not be fair of me to characterize her as “stubborn” or “giving me the paw.”

I’m interested to hear about your dogs. Has your dog ever just shut down? And if so, could you tell what triggered it?

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

  • Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)
  • Threshold: Let’s Work on Defining It
  • Clara’s Rules
  • OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Dog body language, Fear, Multiple dogs, Stress Signals and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Shut Down Dogs, Part 1

  1. Two things: 1, I absolutely love that Zani figured out how to use her Manners Minder on her own ;-) Awesome 2. Poor little girl, I feel very bad for her in that video of her shut down, but really a great comparison, you can definitely see it after watching those other videos!
    My Panzer, when we rescued him, he used to have these moments that were so bizarre that I guess you could call shut down. A few days for example, after we got him, he and Shelby were upstairs in the spare bedroom playing. They were getting along great, and I could hear them romping and laugh panting from downstairs. Then, Shelby came running down the steps, freaking out and jumping at me wildly. She ran up the steps then came running back down. It was a real Lassie type moment. I followed her upstairs and P was just lying in the center of the room, completely stiff, his eyes were…blank, I don’t know how else to describe it. I said his name, nothing, I waved my hand in front of his face, nothing. He just kept lying there, stiff and blinking and gulping with his jaw totally rigid. I went downstairs, put Shelby in her kennel, got a whole bunch of treats and came back up. I made a little treat trail out of the room (I thought maybe the room for whatever reason was freaking him out, since it was, after all, a new environment, we’d only had him a few days). Still nothing. So I just sat in the corner of the room and waited. It took him about half an hour to sorta “wake up” and when he did it was like he was snapping to life. He had those moments for awhile after we rescued him, but I haven’t seen him have one in several months (yey!) The only way I could think to describe it to people was to say it was like he was having a PTSD flashback or something. Very bizarre, but I think similar to what you’re describing.

    • Angela N says:

      crystalpegasus1, that may have been a type of seizure that you observed. There are many types of seizures, not just the grand mal, “total loss of bodily control” ones that people normally think about. Seizures can be triggered by stress or excitement; a new rescue would definitely be both stressed and excited!

    • Wow, that’s quite a story. I love the “lassie” moment. Clara is the only one of my dogs to ever come close to anything like that. She sometimes comes to get me when Zani is waiting at the back door. But I think in her case it’s more like what she would do if her ball were stuck there….she thinks Zani is her toy.

      I agree with Angela. Seizure was the first thing that came to my mind. I’m not any kind of medical person of course, but I’ve had two dogs who’ve had seizures, one of them chronic. I’d be thinking about talking to my vet about that.

  2. Marjorie says:

    Excellent post Eileen. I hear so often people describe their dogs as “willful & stubborn” and I suspect that what is atually the case is “shutdown.” It is such an important state to recognize so that we can help them to shift. The video of Zani is very interesting, it looks like she is really trying to mentaly process what happened and is stuck. In regrds to the “cesar milan’s” of the world, well what can I say…it’s really about them, not the dog.

  3. fearfuldogs says:

    I would say that Sunny had gone to “his special place” when he checked out from being overwhelmed and stressed.

  4. J Koes says:

    thanks for a most insightful blog, Eileen! i think what you’re describing was studied in-depth by Pavlov (i’m Russian so I had quite a bit of exposure to his works and his theory back in the uni where i studied psychology and took a course in Animal Behaviour). here’s an article that looks into Pavlovian take on this shutdown:

    http://www.sott.net/article/136090-Transmarginal-Inhibition

    hope that helps.

    • Wow! You did it. Thank you so much for this link. How interesting that Pavlov described the physiological state (yeah, I know, he was a physiologist!) so long before the behaviorists started talking about learned helplessness. But there does seem to be a continuum of response on the former. I’ll probably be writing about this as I learn more. Thank you SO MUCH. J. Koes.

  5. feelingual says:

    it looks like my comment disappeared so i’ll re-post it — sorry if you receive it twice. thanks for a great blog! i think what you are describing was studied in-depth by Pavlov (i’m Russian so i had quite a bit of exposure to his theory back at uni). there’s an article on the type of shutdown youre referring to, in Pavlov’s terms, i thought you might find it interesting:

    http://www.sott.net/article/136090-Transmarginal-Inhibition

  6. Stuart says:

    Hi, is there a way I can be notified when you write part2.

    Thankyou for a great article

    • Hi Stuart! Glad you liked it. You can sign up for email notifications or Like my FaceBook page, or even follow eileenanddogs on Twitter. On the latter two I rarely do anything besides announce the blogs. If none of these works for you, reply back here and I’ll make myself a note to drop you a line, but the other methods are more reliable than most of my memory aids!

  7. Kim says:

    Yup, I have a ‘shut down’ dog…my Danee shuts down when she doesn’t understand what’s being asked of her (first time teaching her how to lie down, sit and turn left/right)…or if she’s experienced something mildly scary (a loud noise, the other dog ran into her, she got bonked with a plush toy I tossed it for her…). It used to be that any new experience or the process of learning something new would cause an immediate shut down. It’s a pretty sudden state for her. She’ll just freeze with ears drooped and just stare at me. I’ve figured out a quick way to help her ‘snap’ out of it. Not sure why this works for her, but it does…I’ve taught her to put her front feet on my knee to be pet (a position she likes immensely)…so if she’s shut down, I’ll call her to my knee and rub her sides vigorously…she’ll pop down on all fours, do a full body shake (hitting the reset button) and her shut down moment will be gone. Then I’ll address (if necessary) why she shut down in the first place.

    Strangely, she used to (and still does occasionally) shut down when she can’t figure out where to ‘settle’ for the evening. There are 3 dog beds on the floor, a crate, and her special small bed on the couch, in the living room…but sometimes she’ll just walk in circles endlessly in the living room (a 1/2 shut down state for her) if she can’t figure out where to lie down. Those times I stop her and tell her where to lie down and settle. She always seems grateful for me interrupting her endless circling and telling her where to go. It’s like having a choice of where to sleep is too overwhelming for her to deal with.

    I’ve only had her for 5-6 months and these shut down moments used to be very frequent and now they are few and far between. She’s come a long way with building confidence in herself and in me.

    • Wow, Kim. That’s so cool that you can help her get out of it. First, the tactile thing. Then, just helping her decide where to lie down. I guess maybe dogs can get decision fatigue like people?

  8. Sarah Owings says:

    Fantastic post, Eileen! I am currently working on a book on working with dogs that shut down like this. Your description is right on. I love how in your video of Zani you mostly show her at her best! That one incident, that one behavioral response is not who she is. Love it all! Looking forward to part two! –Sarah Owings

  9. Tracy says:

    My incident happened when I was going through KPA with my beagle puppy. I can’t remember exactly what happened but I yelled at the puppy. Had never done that before but I guess I must have been frustrated or something at the moment. He would not interact with me for about a day. It was a real eye opener.

    • Oh, Tracy. That must have been hard on the both of you. I don’t like that it happened to you but I appreciate hearing about another dog that took so long to recover. I think in most cases Zani has recovered (mostly) the same day.

  10. Amy D. says:

    I have noticed when it is thundering and the dogs are frightened that they go into this “shut down” state. Rudy, for instance, will go under my desk, and if it’s time for dinner, he will not pay attention or react when I prompt “go in your crate – dinner time”. If I put his food in front of him, he doesn’t care about it, and no amount of coaxing or cajoling gets a response. However, if I go get a slip lead and put it on him, he immediately follows me and kind of “snaps out of it”. Our Emmie is the same way. She will stand, frozen and trembling – and not respond to commands. She is very food motivated, but that doesn’t even work. It’s like they can’t process the commands because something inside is shorted out. But for some reason they are animated again by having the lead on them. They need the simple guidance of knowing EXACTLY what they should do, and the lead is something they are so familiar with there is no ambiguity.

    • Amy that is really interesting! Cool that you found a way to guide them back into the world. Thanks for sharing that.

    • I have observed the same thing with my dog Donna about the lead. I would be interested to know what you do with the dogs after that and whether it helps? I still struggling for my dog to not go into the shutdown state because there will be times nobody will be at home to comfort her or “snap her out of it” so to speak.

  11. Yes I can recall one moment when my old Foxterrier shut down. She was getting old but I Think I had not really understood the extent of it. She was loosing her Eye sght, she was getting deaf and I Think a bit dement… :-)
    She had done someting in the Woods that I had not liked (can’t remember what now afterwards) and I started scolding her. I Went up to her and kind of expected some kind of reaction but she stood all still and just gazed ahead. She would’nt move or do anything. I have never had a dog react like this for all my 35 years with dogs so I got very confused. It was like she couldn’t hear me. My anger Went away very fast cause I was so confused over her stillness and lack of remorse (if I put it in human terms). She has Always showed “remorse” (bad choice of Words but you get what I mean) while being verbally scolded. But now nothing. So I just started petting her and slowly she “came back”. I thought this was some kind of dementia behaviour but afterwards I have realized it was probably her shutting down. This was a few years back and after that I realized that t was no use scolding her anymore. She was too old for scolding. So I started letting her get by with more and more that I would never accept from a young dog! An old dog has to be pampered a bit I Believe!

  12. Thank you for showing the negative effects of Cesar’s dominance training methods. I was just reminded over the weekend that there are still people out there using his outdated “pack leader” terminology and pushing for the use of pinch collars. Very discouraging.

    • It is pretty discouraging at times, isn’t it. Glad you liked the post. I have another one coming out that shows several dogs (sadly) in a shut down state and their trainers saying how “relaxed” they are. Feels like the emperor’s new clothes sometimes…. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Pingback: Not keeping calm but carrying on – another update on managing thunder phobia | We Live In A Flat

  14. Pingback: 8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales | eileenanddogs

  15. Angie Dairou says:

    2 years ago, we brought home our Portuguese Water Dog puppy. Within 2 weeks, we were out of our minds due to his constant nipping. We knew nothing about dog training. We called a “dog whisperer” type trainer and he alpha rolled my puppy. At first, the dog seemed so calm, but my instinct knew that something was not right. As a psychotherapist, I KNEW 2 things: (1) the dog was in a flight or fight state, but frozen with fear. In human psychology, we call this dissociation. I also knew that the “trainer” was not connected with what my dog was experiencing. I am so thankful that I trusted myself enough to fire the guy after giving him 500 bucks and trust my instinct even though I hadn’t had too much experience raising puppies. You are very correct with the term “shut down”. For more reading, check out dissociation, I think there are some similarities between dogs and people.

  16. Pingback: Shut Down Dogs (Part 2) | eileenanddogs

  17. Laura says:

    My border collie, Levi shut down when I tried clicker training. The more I clicked, the more he shut down. He already had a “verbal click” with “yes”. I switched to a clicker where I could change the tone and pitch. He responded will to a different sound. If he didn’t pick up on a new command by the second try, he would begin to shut down. I then gave him one he knew, built up his confidence, then asked the new command and he would get it. Shoes that squeak on hardwood floors and tile would shut him down as well. So he has sound sensitivities and he hated being “wrong”. With confidence building exercises and distractions, we get through his shut down moments.

    • One of the things I most regret was using a clicker with what turned out to be a very sound sensitive dog. If I had had more experience at the time, I would have known when to stop. But I didn’t, instead trying the usual advice of dampening the sound, etc. In that case I should have stopped altogether. She went from zero to freaked very fast. Laura, I’m glad you were able to work through it with Levi.

      P.S. My little Zani has generalized her fear of the low battery beep of the smoke alarm to certain shoe squeaks as well. I have plans for working on that.

  18. Pingback: “I only correct my dog when he knows what he’s supposed to do.” | Lady Chauncey Barkington III's Finishing School For Dogs and Other Beasts

  19. Pingback: Dominance Behavior - Page 3 - Poodle Forum - Standard Poodle, Toy Poodle, Miniature Poodle Forum ALL Poodle owners too!

  20. Pingback: But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box! | eileenanddogs

  21. Pingback: Angstverhalten | Chakanyuka

  22. Savannah says:

    My own personal dog has never shut down, but I do see this quite a lot on my grooming table. I’m now feeling quite bad, as I wasn’t fully recognizing all the symptoms. I’ve certainly groomed more than one dog who was obviously shut down, but after reading this article and seeing your video, I’m wondering about many others.

    Do you have any recommendations for a groomer? We have to do lots of unpleasant things to each dog in a short time frame. I try very hard to minimize stress, but it’s difficult. Most dogs won’t take treats in that environment and it can be very hard to turn grooming into a positive experience.

    • Savannah, I think you have one of the hardest jobs in the world. I get it that a dog who is very still and quiet would be actually very desirable on the grooming table, so I think lots of groomers (and the public) are just going to see the benefits of that to performing the task, including safety for the dog.

      I don’t know anything about grooming–never even had a dog who needed it. I do know that there is a small FaceBook group of groomers who are trying to do just what you mention, make grooming a positive experience. I’ll find the group and send you the address by email in case you are interested. Good for you for thinking about this. I think you have a generous heart.

  23. Pingback: Not keeping calm but carrying on - another update on managing thunder phobia | We Live In A Flat

    • That’s really interesting! I have noticed lately that Zani, who occasionally gets afraid of something and stays that way for a while, is helped if I distract her, just like you might with a child. This wouldn’t work right away probably, but after she is beginning to recover on her own, I can sometimes start a little training game to “snap her out of it.” I think just having something to do helps sometimes. I think it’s interesting about the leash; I’ll try it sometime. Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s