I recently hosted Chad Makin for his Pack To Basics workshop. We had a wonderful event and many trainers went home with new skills and knowledge to add to their programs in helping dogs and humans deal with aggression issues.
Because the work involves immersing dogs into a group (“pack”) as a main part of the protocol for dealing with dog – dog aggression issues, Chad discussed several concepts early in the day before we moved on to practical applications. The discussion facilitated greater understanding in how the approach served the dogs who would be participating. I found Chad’s view on learned helplessness particularly interesting so I asked him to share those thoughts here on The Truth About Shock Collars.
Give it a read and let me know what you think:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” — Serenity Prayer
There is a term used often in dog training circles usually used in association with abuse. The term is “learned helplessness.” Generally, it calls to mind images of a dog so abused, that is has given up hope of anything from life other than abuse. The image in my own head is one of a cold skinny dog shaking in the corner at the approach of an abusive owner but no longer trying to escape the inevitable beating. Even the term itself has a hopeless ring to it. “Learned helplessness.”
But what does it really mean? The behavioral definition refers to the state where an animal learns that it is unable to affect it’s environment, and as a result stops trying. It is a terrible thing when learned helplessness is a response to abuse, neglect or cruelty. It is truly heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking whether we are talking about a dog, a cat, a mouse, a human, or any other creature really. And it’s important to note that humans also experience this state.
When an animal responds to abuse with learned helplessness they usually “shut down”, meaning they retreat into themselves and stop interacting with the world. They can do this as a response to any number of stresses as well. In training, any time an animal shuts down, it’s a sure sign that the trainer has pushed the animal too far.
But what I am mainly concerned with is the nature of learned helplessness. Is it always a response to abuse? As I’ve said, it is often considered to be synonymous with abuse, but is that fair?
I am writing this on an airplane. There is a small child crying in the row behind me. He stops every now and then for a few moments, and I think I am going to get some rest, and then he starts again. I look around, everyone seems a bit irritated by this and his mother looks both irritated and embarrassed. I have my headphones on, and am listening to music to try to drown out the noise, but it’s not working. He’s right behind me and it seems as if he’s screaming into my ear. I’ve reached a point where I am aware of it, I am mildly annoyed by it (like an itch that I can’t scratch) but I have come to accept it. I live with it because I don’t have a choice.
In other words, I have moved into learned helplessness. Or as we put it with humans who aren’t abused, I’ve “accepted it.” I’ve “gotten over it.”
When my three year old screams because I won’t buy him a toy, or because he doesn’t want a nap, or because he doesn’t get ice cream on demand, I let him cry, and eventually (every time so far) he gets over it. He learns that he cannot change that aspect of his environment and makes a decision to move forward through life despite that disappointment. That is a variation of learned helplessness.
The reality is that all sentient organisms practice learned helplessness every day. For us humans, our lives are full of it. Every time we do something we wish we didn’t have to do we are practicing it (for example, paying taxes). Life involves disappointments and hardships. Those who cannot accept disappointment and hardship are never happy, and never can be. Learned helplessness in the face of simple, or abject disappointment is a necessary life skill. Those who don’t develop it are likely to be frustrated and upset all the time.
I can hear some readers saying, “But dogs don’t have to pay taxes! Your examples are all constructs of human society! Dogs don’t have as many disappointments because they don’t have as many wants! Give them a warmth, affection, and a full belly and they are happy.” To which I reply, “This is true, if they’ve learned to accept life on life’s terms.” Which is kind of my point.
When a litter of pups is dealing with the absence of mom for the first time it is often their first experience with learned helplessness. Mom just gets up and leaves. They scream and cry and try to climb out of the whelping box to no avail. Mother ignores their frustration and anxiety. Somewhere inside, her motherly instinct tells her that this is a good and necessary process for them. Eventually, they all accept that they are without the warmth and protection that their mother provides them. They calm down and get on with the business of exploring their immediate environment. This is natural. This is healthy. It aids in their emotional and physiological development (puppies exposed to low levels of stress early on develop stronger nervous systems).
What we don’t see is the mother dog practicing counter-conditioning, feeding food treats etc. She is instinctively doing what many trainers and behaviorists see as setting the dog up to fail. She is practicing “flooding”. The critics of this practice will tell you that flooding only results in learned helplessness. Based on the way I’ve described learned helplessness, I agree. Where I disagree is in the assertion that such a response necessarily indicates abuse. I don’t believe it does. If they want to define “learned helplessness” in that way, they are more than welcome to do so. But at that moment, they need to exclude the act of acceptance outside of abuse from that definition and recognize that such a response is indeed a possible (if not likely) result of the entirely natural process of flooding.
Accepting that life will not always be as we wish it is part of the maturing process for all species.
So learned helplessness isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s the best thing. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that makes any sense.
The plane is starting to descend. They flight crew has informed us that we need to shut off our electronic devices. I am suddenly aware that the crying child has, during the time I have been writing this, stopped crying. Unable to change his surroundings, he’s chosen to accept them. Flooding, once more led to acceptance. Which is as it should be.