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Canine Learned Helplessness

Sally Gutteridge
Learned helplessness is ironically linked to the name directly associated with positive psychology in people, Martin Seligman. Whilst carrying out an experiment on dogs, to attempt understanding of human depression, he discovered that putting dogs in painful circumstances can lead to them not trying to escape when the trigger for pain stops. He did this by administering a series of electric shocks to dogs that couldn’t escape - then administering shocks to the same dogs that could escape - but the dogs by then had learned helplessness so didn’t try. It then took much longer for the dogs involved to realise that they had regained control over their fate.

The type of testing that Seligman was doing is coined comparative psychology; where the animal is tested and associated with the human brain and thinking patterns, it happens with many animals even today. The experiment was unkind and unfair to the dogs but thankfully ethology is now leading the way with canine research.

Domestic dogs can experience learned helplessness if they have been in a position where they have no choices, been abused or hurt by people. For example, puppy farm dogs, who have spent a lot of time abused and known no kindness may appear helpless if they escape into a kind home. Dogs that have been exposed to unethical training methods such as electric shocks, prong collars or brute force and ignorance will start to emotionally shut down and may reach a state of learned helplessness if their circumstances don’t change for the better.

Learned helplessness can be undone. Depending on how long the dog suffered it may take weeks, months or even years. It took my little Yorkie two years in a safe, loving and respectful home environment to recover from six years being bred from in a puppy farm, when she realised she was safe she started to sparkle and hasn’t stopped since. It could take a dog that has been briefly trained with force and fear, then wisely moved to an educated and kind trainer, a lot less time to recover. As always, dogs are individuals with personal healing time.

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