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. It may be related to tonic immobility, but I don’t know if that applies to dogs in this situation. Hopefully, some biologist or ethologist can clue me in on that. It resembles learned helplessness, but see below for an important distinction.

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 aversive 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. I didn’t advocate 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!

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Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson
updated 12/14/18

69 thoughts on “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.

    1. 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!

      1. Yeah…we thought it was too, P actually has a neurological problem, so he has a neurologist, but it’s his spine that’s the problem, not seizures 😛 Thanks for the heads up though!

    2. 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. 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. 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:

    hope that helps.

    1. 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.

  4. 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:

    1. 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!

  5. 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.

    1. 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?

  6. 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

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

  11. 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.

    1. Thanks for that suggestion, Angie. Dissociation is a good thing to look into. Sorry about your experience with the trainer. Good for you for trusting your instinct.

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

  13. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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!

  14. I think I probably read this entry when you first posted it, but it feels like a whole different idea now that I’m reading it a year later! My dog shuts down during training – or, specifically, when he’s not getting a food lure or specific commands during training. As background, I got him from a shelter, where he was surrendered from what seems like a good, force-free home when he was probably about a year old. I’ve done all positive training, and we’ve been doing agility for almost a year now, which he loves. The shutting down happens when he’s learning something new and can’t figure out what I want – he almost immediately stops trying and just looks at me or the ground if sitting doesn’t get him a click & treat. He had a mental block about “paw” and it took him about a year to learn it, even though he has no problem with any of his paws being handled. Even when I got him a KONG wobbler, he just stared at it without sniffing or touching it, and eventually he just started barking at it in frustration till I wobbled it around for him several times. We’re now working with a new trainer who uses shaping for agility, and when I tried to work with my dog this morning I was waiting for him to even move or look at me so I had something to click with the clicker. He can learn things with a food lure, but how do I help him become confident enough to try to figure things out himself? If you’ve already covered this in another post or you know some good resources, can you point me in the right direction? Thank you so much in advance.

    1. Hi Jill,

      This is a question I don’t feel really qualified to answer, but I have one resource for you and then I’m going to ask some more experienced trainers to chime in. If you are on FaceBook, you might want to join the Fearful Dogs group. Even if your dog is not fearful in general, this “shutdown” response is very common among fearful dogs and I bet you could pick up some helpful information from Debbie Jacobs or others in the group. The URL for the FB group is . There is also a website at . Hang tight and I’ll see if I can get you some direct suggestions.


      PS I did write one post about the stress of shaping. Here it is in case it is useful, but I get that with your dog you don’t really get started at all, so most of this probably doesn’t apply.

    2. If you haven’t done clicker training before, I would not start with shaping. I would start by simply charging the clicker, during a moment when your dog isn’t appearing to be shut down. So, just click/treat, without requiring any behavior, for about 30 reps. After that, to test whether he’s actually getting that the clicker predicts the treat, you can click when he’s not looking. If he turns to look at you expectantly for the treat, then he’s starting to understand. Next, I’d try clicking and treating for a behavior he already knows, such as “sit” or “down” so that he can see the relationship between getting it right and earning the C/T. I’d avoid shaping until he’s VERY comfortable with learning behavior that you capture, such as an ear flick, a head turn, or a paw swipe. The worst thing you can do to a shut down dog, IMO, is to go too quickly or to raise criteria too quickly and produce frustration. Some dogs need smaller steps and more successful repetitions before advancing. Other dogs need more foundation work on the fear before doing ANY of this. I suggest getting a copy of Debbie Jacobs’ book, Fearful Dogs, and joining the Fearful Dogs Facebook group. Lots of help there.

  15. Thanks to both of you! I will check out those resources. My dog and I have been using the clicker almost since I got him 2 years ago, but we’ve always used it with food lures – with the exception of “paw,” he has been a quick study. (He learned agility by getting clicked for targeting my hand.) I’ve been able to shape him to spontaneously look at me on walks (he already knew “look” – dog coming – and “watch me” – I’m going to steer you somewhere), so I’m trying to think of something else to shape when he’s already in motion. Just joined the Fearful Dogs group; thanks again!

    1. That’s great! One more comment here from Awesomedogs: don’t miss it. I like it that people are going at it from both an operant approach (address ways to get behavior) and classical (address the dog’s shut down response, which may be fear related). The Fearful Dogs group also discusses both approaches. Hope you find the right combination for your dog.

    2. Hi Jkronstadt, I also specialize in dogs that shut down–especially during training. You can contact me on Facebook as well. Just look for Sarah Owings. Dogs that have been lured a lot sometimes get dependent on it and won’t offer behavior because they’ve actually been reinforced heavily for sitting and waiting to be shown what to do. Free shaping or capturing a behavior in a vacuum is for these dogs sort of like handing a shy kid a big piece of paper and a paintbrush and asking her to create a masterpiece on the spot in front of you. That is high pressure! What I like to start with is to use simple interactions with objects as a starting point. NOT 101 things to do with a box!! That is also too many choices and can freeze the dog. Instead, try shaping towards one simple action per object such as push a ball, step on a platform, follow a target, etc. Split the criteria into tiny tiny slices, but always do your best to click for movement, not stillness. For push a ball, you might start with eye flicks at the ball, then, stretching her nose a little bit in the direction of the ball, etc. Tossing treats to reset and keep the dog moving around is also a great way to go. Remember to work in VERY VERY short sessions to begin with and take lots of breaks. Contact me if you’d like more ideas. This is the book I am writing, so I have lots of them! 🙂

  16. I have in the past used classical conditioning first as a bridge to getting “anything” to click. For example, if a dog really sits and does “nothing” with a toy, I might start with toy = treat. Repeat over and over.
    Then if you create the association and the dog is excited to see the toy, you can withhold the treat.
    Toy = pause.
    If you did the conditioning, you’ll probably get movement or a nudge. Which then you can start shaping.
    Also, some dogs have learned that sitting and doing nothing brings out the lure. So maybe try capturing first? Let them realize that they have the ability to create something on their own. Their behaviour can make you bring out the food.
    Just a couple different ways of approaching it. I find once you get two creative behaviours, the dogs start to free up and try to do more.

  17. Update: I got in touch with the trainer I’ve worked with since getting my dog and her assistant, and they suggested the “101 Things to Do with a Box” activity from Karen Pryor’s page and pointed out that asking for initiative with the same objects for which I’d previously used a lure was part of my dog’s confusion. I did get Sad Doggie Face some of the time, but there was definitely a lot more activity when we tried the box: Pryor writes, “You are, after all, teaching your dog new rules to a new game. If you have already trained your dog by conventional methods, the dog may be respecting the general rule, ‘Wait to be told what to do.’ So the first rule of this new game, ‘Do something on your own, and I will click,’ is a toughie.

    Wish us luck!

    1. Hi jkronstadt! First I just want to say how great it is that you are actively seeking advise on how to support your dog and help her to be more brave with her learning. I don’t know if you noticed my earlier comment about NOT starting with 101 things. That is actually a much more difficult game for a dog than people realize and can create frustration. I recommend you choose ONE thing to do with a box and shape for that. You can let your dog decide what that one thing is, however. For example, if your dog tends more towards sniffing and interacting with her nose, go for touch the box with nose, put head in the box, or even push the box. But if your dog offers paw movement, go with that and you can shape paw touches to the box, or maybe even stepping in. Let the dog decide, but then stick with only ONE final behavior. 101 things changes the rule on the dog over and over again that each click means “try something different,” when what you want your dog to learn first is that a click means “You got it! Repeat that again!” Much easier for the brave learners to start that way! Have fun!

  18. Thanks! Great tips! My dog is enjoying the box, so I’m trying to work towards “Get in the box,” or I might flip it over and do “Put your front feet on the box,” which he might like better.

  19. Hi Eileen, really enjoy your blogs. I was wondering where I could find info on the statement that dogs in learned helplessness are shut down, but shut down dogs are not necessarily in learned helplessness. Thanks!

    1. Hi Heather, If you find the information please let me know! Seriously, I was making a semantic argument in this piece using the definition of the term, and I haven’t seen others do that.

      To me, for learned helplessness to be present, the animal has to have learned that it has no control over outcomes, and it does not recover from this state in later situations even when aversives are applied and escape is possible, because that is what was being described as a result of Seligman’s experiments. The way to test that is something we would never do as humane trainers, but it would be to apply an aversive stimulus to the shut down dog and see if the dog took action to escape it. I think if the dog had been trained in that manner though in the first place, it would.

      I argued in the piece that a dog trained with shock, for instance, has learned to perform behaviors to avoid the shock, and as long as it is performing behaviors to do so, it is not in a state of learned helplessness, which is a persistent state. In Seligman’s experiment, the only way they could get the dogs to learn to move to escape the shock was to physically move their legs and bodies for them a few times.

      That being said, a lot of people perceive a kind of continuum of learned helplessness, and would go ahead and apply to term to animals that had extremely inhibited behavior as a result of maltreatment, even if they weren’t completely unable to respond.

      But there is also one clear example of animals being shut down but not in learned helplessness: it is that some species freeze into near catatonia as a fear response. I think it’s seen more in prey animals, but most of us has seen dogs do it. For instance, I would bet that my dog Zani’s shut down state is a pure physiological fear response and not an example of learned helplessness.

      I hope this helps!

  20. “First, I haven’t found a technical definition of the term. If there is one, hopefully some biologist or ethologist will tell me.” The term you may be looking for is tonic immobility.

    1. Thanks! I have wondered about that one. Just looked it up again–I think it may apply. Thanks so much for the comment.

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