What is learned helplessness?
TV’s The Dog Whisperer has made ‘learned helplessness’ all the rage. There is no question that it is possible to get behaviors from dogs using a variety of different techniques. If you stood over your kid with a mallet and threatened them with violence if they didn’t do their homework, you may get the homework done, but at what cost? It is that cost that has gone unnoticed by Cesar Millan and his many advocates when the threat of punishment, intimidation or pain is used to change behaviors in dogs. Dogs that are bullied into behaving certain ways may behave that way so long as the abuser is present, so a resource guarder may allow dad to take his bones away but junior gets bit. It’s not about being alpha, or being the pack leader, it’s about changing how a dog perceives having its stuff handled by people, and that takes training, not bullying.
Worse then just choosing to selectively comply with particular behavior requests is a dog that no longer makes a choice. This is called ‘learned helplessness’ and the laboratory studies done to define and describe this condition are pretty miserable to read about. Basically a dog was subjected to electrical shocks on the floor while in a room with a low divider that had an area on the other side where no shocks were administered. Some dogs were allowed to jump over the divider to escape the shocks, while others were not. The dogs that were not allowed to jump over the divider after repeatedly being shocked stopped trying to escape the shocks, even when the opportunity for escape was offered to them! They basically gave up trying to help themselves.
So what does this have to do with The Dog Whisperer? Ever watched an episode in which a dog was forced repeatedly to walk on a particular surface, be near something, or otherwise be made to deal with whatever scared it? Eventually the dog stops resisting and complies and everyone smiles and feels warm and fuzzy cause the dog has been ‘cured’. In most cases the dog is not feeling warm and fuzzy and has not ‘learned’ to not be afraid of what is scaring it, it has just learned to stop trying to make the terror go away. This may be enough for many dog owners, but it does nothing to create or maintain a positive, trusting relationship with a dog, and has not given the dog, or owner, any new skills in how to manage challenging situations.
I love watching dogs perform tricks, run agility courses, leap for frisbees, fling themselves off docks to chase a tennis ball or sit in front of a toddler with a paw raised and an expectant look on their face as they mug for a treat. A dog performs these behaviors not only because they were trained to, but because the behaviors are fun and rewarding to them. These behaviors were learned by the dog. Dogs can learn all kinds of new behaviors to replace inappropriate ones, but not if they’ve given up believing that their behavior can effect their experience.
Check out this video. The footage of the dog biting its owner after being shocked is a glaring example of negligence by Mr. Millan.