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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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?