Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)

Cane corso rolled
The video from which this still is taken says that this dog has “submitted and become relaxed”

This is Part 2 of a two-part series.

In Shut Down Dogs, Part 1 I observed that some people claim that a shut down dog is relaxed or calm since it is motionless. In that post I included a video of my own dog Zani after she had been scared by an air snap from my rat terrier.

In this post I am supporting my claim. I’ve put together a compilation of clips from many published movies in which dogs are motionless or moving in very guarded, unnatural ways. In most of the examples of motionless dogs in the movie, the narrator says that they are “relaxed.” They are far from it, and it takes no advanced knowledge of dog body language to tell.

In the clips of dogs demonstrating very guarded, unnatural motion, no one is saying that they are “relaxed,” but in all cases they are from videos that are supposedly showcasing successful training. Their behavior is obviously thought to be desirable. The dogs just happen to be scared and intimidated out of their minds.

Most of us learned in elementary school that both wild and domesticated animals may become motionless and freeze to hide and protect themselves. People, too! We have seen the careful movements of animals who are scared. So we actually should know better than to confuse stillness with relaxation across the board. But our cultural mythology about dogs-—which I have not been immune to—trumps that. It is like the Emperor’s New Clothes. So many things we take for granted about dogs are obviously wrong once we learn to actually perceive the dog in front of us. And when we learn just a bit of science, we can see through even more misconceptions.

The video is pretty unpleasant, but I hope it communicates. Please share if you think it is helpful.

Note: You may see ads on this video (alone among all of my videos). That’s because the owner of one of the clips I included under Fair Use made a copyright claim to YouTube. He is allowing the video to stay available with his clip in it, but gets the revenue if the ads are clicked on. Those few pennies he might get are worth it to me to keep this educational video available and intact. But of course I hope you don’t click on the ads. 

Shock trained dog "Coming to Heel"
Aversively trained dog “Coming to Heel”

Dogs in Motion

A special note about the dogs that are shown in motion. At least two of the three clips show shock trained dogs, and I suspect the third does too.

Although some breeds deal with it better, including those who are bred specifically to stand up to high use of aversives in training, there is often a certain look to dogs trained with shock.

These dogs move with extremely inhibited movement, as if they are afraid of getting one toe out of place. They do not wag their tails (they usually tuck them). They hunch their bodies and keep their heads down. They are apathetic and guarded. But their movements can be quite jerky, as you will see in the video of the German Shepherds. When cued to get up from lying down they move as if shot out of a cannon, then pack themselves around their trainer and slow back down. (It’s pretty easy to guess how that was trained.)

Also, in two of the clips when the dogs lie down on cue, they do so in slow motion, very carefully, as if every muscle and joint is hurt by the movement. You can see this in the clip with the German Shepherd Dogs and the last clip with the white dog.

Shelter Dog Photos

I didn’t put clips of these dogs into the video, because in these cases, the humans involved correctly and sympathetically identified that the dogs were extremely stressed. I am including the pictures here as more good examples of shut down dogs. They are all traumatized by the shelter environment and probably experiences from before they entered the shelter. (All three dogs recovered and were adopted.)

Each dog is avoiding eye contact and has a body posture which is avoidant and drawn in on itself. The papillon and lab both have visibly roached backs and tails tucked close to their bodies. All three dogs were unresponsive or avoidant of human touch in the videos.


light tan dog with a black tail and muzzle lying on her right side, relaxed, on a navy blue mat
Sometimes I find it hard to believe I actually taught my dog to do this!

So if watching the “Shut Down Dogs” video is like taking some bad-tasting medicine, don’t worry, you get a treat afterwards!

I have also compiled a video of dogs in various stages of relaxation, and most importantly, who are being taught to relax using positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.

We’ve got a variety of techniques going on. With Clara, I used marking for stillness (since I had already messed up and marked too quickly for relaxed behaviors and got a dog who flailed around). In the photo above, she is less relaxed than she is in the clip in the movie, but I still claim bragging rights. (You can still see some slight, telltale wrinkles in her forehead.) She can get to that state faster and faster these days, and in more stimulating environments.  With Summer I marked for progressively more relaxed behaviors. It worked well because she is lower energy. I also did Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol with Summer.

Sarah Owings used Nan Arthur’s Relax on a Mat method from Chill Out Fido: How to Calm Your Dog. Marge Rogers used several techniques, and demonstrates the On/Off Switch Game from Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. Elizabeth Smith demonstrates settle on cue (after exciting activity) from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. Tena Parker describes the method that got her an amazingly relaxed dog at a noisy agility trial and many other chaotic environments in the article: Help, My Dog is Wild!

A word about classical conditioning and Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. Rather than specifically reinforcing relaxed behaviors, the Relaxation Protocol only asks of the dog that she perform a down, and the trainer does progressively more active and potentially arousing things in prescribed orders. Walking around, trotting, clapping hands, backing up, going through a door, ringing a doorbell, saying hello to someone (imaginary), etc. After each action, the dog gets a treat. What it teaches the dog is that when she is on her mat, whatever happens out in the world doesn’t matter. She doesn’t have to respond to it. She can zone out and not worry. After the dog “gets” the basics of the protocol, you can start working in many other events and actions to let the dog know that they are also “no big deal.”

I’m pointing this out because you can see something interesting in the video. In the short clip I clap my hands, give Summer a treat, then jog in place, then give her a treat. She flops down on the mat after each treat, but the interesting thing is that each time I finish my activity, her ears pop up, anticipating her treat. She knows from oodles of repetitions that the treats depend on my actions, not hers. That’s the result of classical conditioning. Each weird action on my part predicts something good.

Summer is moderately relaxed on the front porch
Summer is moderately relaxed on the front porch

I have also reinforced relaxed behaviors with Summer. I’m sharing the photo on the left to show a step towards relaxation in a more stimulating environment than our front room. She is not as relaxed as she can get, however, given that she is on the front porch with a view of the street, a very exciting place for her, her level of calmness is coming along nicely.

If you want to see even more stills of relaxed dogs, check out the cute ridgebacks in Shut Down Dogs, Part 1.


I didn’t cherry pick videos with particularly miserable dogs. That’s not what I was looking for. There are plenty of those, of course. The point of this post is to show that a certain segment of the population finds the behavior of shut down and forcibly restrained dogs desirable (and makes up stories about them being relaxed). That was my criterion: videos demonstrating that people have illusions about certain behavior (or lack of behavior) from dogs.

Videos of intimidated, apathetic, or frozen dogs are so easy to find. People post them on YouTube to show off their training skills, to “educate,” or, in some cases, to let their friends laugh at their dogs.

I think they perfectly demonstrate what Dr. Jennifer Cattet describes in her thoughtful piece “When is Controlling Our Dog Too Controlling?” A demonstration of the desire to control, not such a great thing to start with, gone completely amok. When the dogs are controlled down to the level where there is no spark of life left in them.

In contrast, what you see in the section on teaching dogs to relax are dog owners who are training a behavior for the benefit of their dogs. Sure, it helps the owners, too, but it directly makes for a dog who is more comfortable in this world of ours. I believe it is a big-hearted thing to do.

I hope this comparison of shut down intimidated dogs and relaxed dogs was helpful. Anyone want to share more relaxation techniques?

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

58 thoughts on “Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)

  1. Thanks for this post. I only wish more forceful trainers could see it and understand their techniques as cruel, not to mention very poor science with regard to dog psychology and behavior. One of the trainers featured in your video is from the training franchise that the German shepherd rescue I foster for advocates/is connected to. They use shock collars and all of their demo videos just break my heart.

  2. One relaxation technique that I use is to simply observe my dog and click and treat for relaxed body posture, or for voluntary downs, or anything observable that is antithetical to arousal. Eventually, do it long enough and relaxation becomes more rewarding, hence the dog relaxes more. Since I have a dog with a metabolic disorder, who probably won’t ever be totally relaxed, the addition of the skill of just relaxing “more than you were” is very helpful.

  3. There is nothing more joyful to me than a dog that is comfortable in their own skin. Sometimes this takes the form of chilling, sometimes it takes the form of a focused, thinking animal.
    The extremes, the tense slow moving dog or the twitchy, needy dog that appears excited but is very grovelling “am I right? please let me be right? I’m looking at you…really I’m looking at you…am I right”? those dogs make me very sad.
    Slow movement does not equal calm.
    Rapid movement does not equal happy.

  4. Reblogged this on Z-dogs Blog and commented:
    Another great one from eileenanddogsblog. It is night and day to compare “calm and relaxed” body language achieved by force, and calm and relaxed body language achieved via positive reinforcement. Check out Zydeco’s guest appearance in the video at the end showing all the different ways one can teach relaxation to dogs.

  5. Great blog again. I see so many examples of dogs that are called relaxed when in fact they are shut down. I can accept it from dog owners who have no way of knowing the difference BUT when it is being routinely preached by “trainers” to the thousands of followers on their facebook pages, who then go away and tell everyone how wonderful that trainer is then I dispair for the sad lives those dogs are forced to live. Hopefully one day pet owners and trainers will be more educated. I also want to add that this shut down behaviour is rife in the horse training community often due to the application of Natural Horsemanship Methods.

    Can I suggest a follow up article on ways to bring a shut down dog back into the land of the living.
    Keep up the excellent work. Well Done !

    1. Thanks, Louise. Man, I hadn’t even thought of horses. Of course.

      That’s a tall order for a followup article, but it certainly needs to be done! Hoping a pro trainer will work on writing that one, but I’d love to help.

      1. I have some footage that might work. I will have to give it some thought. In horses we more often than shutdown see aggression or “disobedience” ( catch cry for horse won’t do as I want despite increasing levels of punishment) as a result of punishment used but I have seen shutdown as well and it pretty much looks the same as what you are describing.

  6. Oh, man … this one just made me want to cry — especially that poor white dog at the end 🙁 If you can watch that and not see that there’s something terribly wrong going on, there’s something terribly wrong with you.

  7. I have a question , my dog hates her harnas (this because it probably was put on her the wrong way when i wasn’t arround)if I get the leash and the harnas she walkes away from me , if i put it on with treats if she puts her hed in all on her own she still freeses up and sometimes even starts to drool,
    when i take her outside she walks over it (so it seems ) her tail goes up half way but she shakes a whole lot to get rid of the harnas.

    How can I make her like the harnas .

    kind regards
    Lin de Bree

    1. Hi Lin,

      Good for you for wanting to help your dog like her harness better. I can’t give specific training advice, but here are a couple of videos from professionals that might help. How to Train Your Dog to Love His Harness by Kikopup and Teaching a Dog to Wear a Muzzle by Chirag Patel. Even though the second one is about wearing a muzzle and not a harness, it splits out more steps and describes ways to make the experience of wearing something very positive for your dog.

      I hope this helps a little bit! In general, going way more slowly than you think you need to with this process is usually the way to go.


  8. Great blog. For my little puppy mill survivor rescue, who really needed some help in learning how to relax in her new, sometimes overwhelming world, I add a soft lullaby (is her cue for go to her mat, as well) and massage in addition to the relax on a mat.

    For anyone considering massaging a dog, I recommend first checking out Eileen’s two blogs that cover the body language of a dog who welcomes your touch.

  9. By the way, you think that guy with all those shepherds might have been using them to compensate for something? I find it pathetic, not impressive.

  10. The video was hard but both the shut down dogs and relaxed dog videos are good references. I have been checking out local day care and boarding services and in every single one of them, I hear that “tsch” sound being made at dogs. That makes me nervous and I felt that I have to really voice up that I would not stand to have my dog be laid on her side forcefully so any situation arise that could lead to that.

    1. Thanks for watching the “shut down” video; hope it was worth it.

      Day cares are tricky. Summer and Zani went to one for several years, the best I could find. They don’t go anymore, but even though the situation is not perfect, I’m glad to have a place they can go board in an emergency.

  11. I couldn’t watch the videos; I didn’t want to torture myself. I would add a comment with the knowledge of neurophysiology that I’ve learned during conflict resolution training for humans. A decrease in arousal takes a full 3 minutes for the autonomic nervous system to take place. Whether the arousal is caused by positive or negative stimuli I wonder about the mentally relaxed state of a dog within the first 3 minutes of a stimulus. A dog dropping into anatomically relaxed position immediately after a bought of tug may possibly not be neurologically relaxed (depending on the intensity and duration of tugging) until it has rested in that position for up to 3 minutes. The neutral body position may just be a learned postural behavior even though it was learned with positive reinforcement. I wonder if it’s useful to further define a relaxed state as anatomically relaxed vs neurologically/emotionally relaxed. 🙂

    1. Thanks! This is extremely useful information to think about! I know that my dogs have learned to “fake” relaxed positions via positive reinforcement, but in general if they stay there for a while I believe neurological relaxation kicks in. I think it’s a very useful distinction. Thanks for the comment. (Don’t blame you for not watching the movies.)

  12. This is a difficult video to watch, but one that makes an important point. I have just one suggestion, and that is to re-edit it by starting with the “ordinary cruelty” of the people not realizing their are upsetting their dogs. I’ve had a friend say she couldn’t watch after the first sequence, so there might be many people who see that and say to themselves, “Well, I’d never condone THAT,” and stop watching, or who simply can’t bear to go on and miss the less obvious cases that are closer to their reality.

    1. That’s a really good suggestion, Kristen. One of these days when I can stomach working on it again I will do that.

  13. I think you are making an excellent point. It’s so sad to see those shut down dogs. My own dog (a recent rescue) shuts down regularly (though less and less everyday as she learns she’s safe now) and it’s so sad to see. I wish you hadn’t included the video with the “dog that needed a hug” in with the others though. I watch Eldad’s videos on youtube and he rescues street dogs from terrible lives. He knows they are shut down and terrified (his videos often point this out) but the moment of terror is necessary to get them safe and into better lives. Check out some of the after videos, the dogs certainly don’t stay in a fear state for long. I just don’t think it’s fair to include that clip with aversive training techniques.

    1. The goal is to show what a shut down dog looks like. I have included videos of my own dog. People can make their own decisions about whether a period of shut down behavior is necessary or not. I’m glad your dog is feeling safer and safer. Sounds like you are doing a good job.

    1. The website for the franchise you mention has this as its first question under the FAQ:

      We offer e-collar training and clicker training.

      Also note that I did not specifically claim that either the franchise or the video in question involves a shock collar. But since shock collar use is front and center on the website, and there are tons of videos showing them, it seems like a rather strange argument.

  14. Hi, Eileen!
    After watching your videos I’ve come to realize that I’ve been mistreating my new puppy (a 6 months old saluki/canaan girl), adopted from a shelter not a week ago. Apparently I’m an agressive person and need to learn restraint…
    I have a question: sometimes when I get near her, Lizzie flips on her back, tucks her front legs close to her chest and opens wide her hind legs. My boyfriends’ family dog does that to get tummy rubs, but Lizzie also exhibits signs of shutting down. So, (a) is there anything I can learn from the position of her legs, and (b) what do I need to do to make her less fearful of me?

    Thanks ahead,

    1. Hi Olga,
      Good for you for wanting to be gentle to your pup! I consulted with some colleagues and there is probably no easy way to tell from leg position whether a dog is asking for a belly rub or wants you to go away. But you can probably learn to tell from other things she does. Here are two videos to start you off.

      Does Your Dog Really Want to Be Petted? (my own video)

      How to Ask if a Dog Really Likes to Be Petted (this movie by a friend is brand new and so good!)

      Watch those both a couple of times, then try some of the ideas yourself. You can probably find out if your dog wants you to touch her or not. If she doesn’t, don’t despair. That may change later as she comes to trust you.

      Also, I don’t know if your dog is generally fearful or not, but here is another blog of mine to check out:

      Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe

      We always want to shower our new dogs with love and want them to be a part of everyrhing we do, but if your dog wants to get away and hide, it’s usually a good idea to let her. It doesn’t usually work to force a scared dog to interact. It’s human nature to not want them to go hide, but sometimes it’s the very thing that will let the dog start to trust you.

      If your dog is a bit fearful, a great resource is the Fearful Dogs group on Facebook.

      I hope this helps. Feel free to write again if you have more questions.

  15. There is so much I want to come back and pick your brains about on this subject Eileen particularly as I recently rehomed by brother’s 8yr old Springer Spaniel whose fear, anxiety and body language is painful to watch and actually worse than nearly all of the dogs in these videos.

    Brother wouldn’t have it that she was scared of him at all and instead said she was crawling along the floor trying to get nearer to me when he picked her up because I spoiled her and made her soft. Nothing you can say to that really.

    Anyway she’s now with us for good which is the main thing but I have so many different questions and points I’d love to hear your views on but will come back and hassle you later. 😀

    1. Hi again Auntysocial (great nickname, by the way!)

      How kind of you to take in the scared Springer.

      If you are on Facebook, go check out the Fearful Dogs group. It is public. Start going through the files. To join the group and be able to post, you need to take a $10 webinar which I also highly recommend. There are tons of people there dealing with scared dogs from all types of situations.

      I’m not trying to get you to leave here! I will answer questions as I can. But the Fearful Dogs group would be a fantastic resource for you.

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