Learned Helplessness

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Dec 2, 2014, 01.02 AM IST

In the list of abnormal behaviours of animals, one of the problem behaviours often identified in home dogs is learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a failing to respond even though there are opportunities for the animal to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining rewards.


Dogs that suffer from learned helplessness respond poorly to reward-based training. Such a dog is very slow at understanding what part of his behaviour is earning him rewards. Consequently, getting the dog to learn a new behaviour or unlearn an one becomes quite difficult. For example, a dog might want attention from his pet parents and try to get it by grabbing people by his teeth. The best way to train a puppy not to do that is to not give him what he wants – attention. The other part of this training is rewarding him with attention if he asks politely. However, a dog with learned helplessness will fail to identify this reward and will continue to seek attention by grabbing.


A dog trapped in learned helplessness may display poor conflict avoidance techniques. Such a dog may find it hard to pass by another dog on his walk. What initially starts out as excitement or anxiety at spotting another dog might soon turn into aggression. He has not recognised the option of walking away from another dog. So he feels compelled to react and with the passing of time, reactions can get more and more unpleasant.


When such dogs are closely examined, there are one of two things that stand out as prominent features in their home – over training or under stimulation.


Over training is where the dog is instructed so much that he stops using his own brain and relies entirely on humans. When put in a stressful situation, he fails to use his own mind to identify that he has the option of walking away. He feels trapped. An animal that feels trapped is very likely to fight back.
Under stimulation is the other common issue with urban pets. Dogs in nature have plenty of things to do – things to sniff, things to discover, scavenging for food etc. Our dogs, however, are kept in pristine households, with food served on a platter and every odour diligently eliminated each morning with disinfectant. Many pet parents will also discourage dogs from sniffing when on walks. The dog is expected to do nothing other than potter around the home all day or run around like he has lost his mind, chasing after a ball.


Either way, his judgement can be quite poor and he will exhibit the lack of ability to identify options – learned helplessness.


In contrast, a confident dog is very good at using his brain. In situations that could lead to potential conflict, he will quickly diffuse it or walk away. Animals have evolved to avoid conflict to preserve their species. Conflict avoidance is natural.


As pet parents, we can do our dogs a lot of good if we teach them to help themselves as far as possible. It could start with getting them work for food. That could mean figuring out how to get kibble it out of a box or bottle or perhaps sniffing it out. Puzzles are often known to sharpen people’s minds. The same holds true for dogs. They make a dog think. It is very interesting to see each dog develop a different strategy to get his reward. Some dogs use strength, others use their teeth and some others use tact.

Allowing a dog to sniff a lot on walks is also very gratifying for a dog. Dogs have a powerful sense of smell and they will love putting that strength to use. The basic notion is that we identify as many different ways as possible to put the brain of a dog to use rather than just view him as a dumb animal that just needs physical exercise and food. Recognising the mind of the dog and giving it a workout on a dog’s behaviour and wellness.

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