A Discussion of Learned Helplessness and How to Avoid It.

Written by

Kevin Miller

Written by

Kevin Miller

In 2019, Kevin decided to pursue his dream of understanding dog behavior / training and joined Canine Revolution to further his education and dedicate himself to coaching others through their training process.

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Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness by definition is behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. Also defined as when a mammal stops responding during a situation where it has no option to avoid positive punishment or negative reinforcement. A learned helplessness response is when an event is both traumatic & outside the mammal’s control.

Maybe a bit too sciency to start off with, but let’s break it down and how it pertains to interactions with your dog.
Without diving too far into operant conditioning, positive punishment & negative reinforcement pertain to two of the four quadrants used to shape behavior discovered by B.F. Skinner. I’m sure future articles and episodes will dive into these with great detail.

To break down learned helplessness and explain how it pertains to everyday interactions with your dog, we need to start off with the basics.

Example 1

I’m sure by now you have heard that if a dog eliminates (goes potty) where it’s not supposed to, just rub their nose in it upon discovery and they’ll magically learn potty training right?

Wrong, stop doing that. Not only does that extremely physical act diminish the bond between dog & owner but it could also create anxieties & insecurities within your dog & now they won’t potty anywhere for fear of punishment.

Example 2

Another example being you come home and your dog has torn up your home. Your brand new $3000 couch is in pieces, the normal response from most people would be to wag their finger while raising their voice “bad boy!’ “you know better!”. If you encounter this regularly I would refer you to our past episode / article on under-stimulation. In order for you to understand why these scenarios should not elicit the above responses, we need to go into how the dog thinks in real-time.

Timing is Important For Dog Training

From a training aspect, timing is extremely important. This is why we condition verbal or sound markers (clickers, beeps, etc) to mark when the right or wrong thing has been done as fast as possible. The reason being, if my dog knows how to sit when I give the command & they perform the desired task then I need to have something conditioned that allows my dog to understand that he has done the right thing, in our case we use the verbal marker “good”.

If I delay in marking the behavior then say “good”, what has happened in the time between the obedience and my marker? Maybe my dog has looked left, stood up, or started to come to me. At that point what behavior am I reinforcing? Am I reinforcing & rewarding for the sit or for another behavior?

To a dog they very much live in the moment, whatever I mark and reward for at that moment is what they understand as the desired behavior. Same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum. Being delayed while using my accountability marker, in this case, the marker is “no”. What am I communicating to my dog that it was not ok to do? I tell him to sit and if he doesn’t perform it I should say “no” almost right away. What if I don’t though? What occurs between the desired behavior not being performed & my marker? He sniffed the ground, looked at me, etc, did I inadvertently tell him he shouldn’t sniff the ground?

Being delayed in our accountability methods could not only confuse our dog but cause anxieties & insecurities as well. It’s our responsibility as dog owners to effectively communicate to our dog, not from where we understand but from where they understand. Saying your dog knows better over and over again without improvement of behavior falls completely on us as owners. We failed to set the expectations & to make sure 100% that they know them.

Helping Dogs with Learned Helplessness

Now then let’s go back to the torn-up house or the puddle of urine you slipped in when you came home from work.

Our normal reactions are frustration, disappointment, long sighs as you try to collect yourself from ruining your favorite pair of shoes, etc. Dogs feed off of our energy, they will instantly start displaying different reactions the second we walk in the door. How much time has passed since the dog soiled in your living room or destroyed your house?

So we start yelling, saying no or bad dog, maybe even grabbing the rolled-up newspaper and bopping our dog on the nose, shoving them outside, whatever. Point is that during these actions the dog has no understanding of why they are occurring. What is occurring, however, is what the dog perceives as a traumatic event, they weren’t given a chance or opportunity to avoid the negative stimuli. This can cause the dog to then shut down, freeze, create or build upon insecurities / anxieties, but ultimately achieve learned helplessness.

Going through these events and building upon that insecurity in our dogs can cause even more undesirable behaviors. All aggressive behaviors tend to be rooted in insecurity, through reinforcing this the insecure behavior could eventually escalate into growling, snarling, barking, & even biting. Insecure dogs react aggressively in order to escape uncomfortable situations, as they are rewarded with escaping the situation that behavior then escalates. Learned helplessness I feel is often associated with the act of shutting down or giving up essentially. However, I believe that through repetition of achieving learned helplessness you could get a variety of responses based on the dog to include reactions as listed above.

I’m sure by now that you have all seen the viral videos of dogs when their owner comes home to an undesirable scenario. They may be “smiling”, rolling on their backs, or even making odd yet funny noises to us humans. Humans so often make the mistake of misinterpreting what a dog is communicating to them. For instance, smiling in the dog world doesn’t mean the same as it does in the human world. What it likely means is anxiety, could be displacement behavior as well because the second we walked through that door & into that situation we started putting off a vibe.

If the scenario has happened on multiple occasions then they could be conditioned to the point that when you come home, they think something negative will happen. When our dog performs undesirable behaviors such as these we need to think to ourselves what have we done wrong instead of what has our dog done wrong. Have we provided adequate stimulation (again refer back to our previous article), did we allow enough potty time even though we were running late for work? Have we achieved fully potty training with the expectations to not eliminate in the home to where our dog understands them?

Again communication with your dog is extremely important but we need to make sure that they understand.

Closing

In closing, we need to keep our bond strong between us & our dogs. We need to preserve our hands as positive rewards & avoid creating or reinforcing insecure / anxious mindsets. Learned helplessness along with miscommunication that could confuse the dog or blur their understanding needs to be avoided. But how?

Outside of coming to Canine Revolution for training, I would suggest accessing our previous and future episodes depending on the situation you’re dealing with. Ultimately managing your dog’s time, energy, and mindset is the key to success along with clear and concise communication between you & your dog that both parties understand fully.

You can read our post on dog management – Here

And don’t rub your dog’s nose in their excrement, ever.

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