Learning Helplessness

A few weeks ago at the park, I met a dog named JJ, an adorable mutt with floppy ears and a lean, boxer-ish body. I noticed he was a bit rambunctious, and always being called on it by his owner, but he seemed pretty happy and goofy to me. The next time I saw JJ, I realized his “owner” was actually his trainer. His owner was a middle-aged woman, who explained that JJ had been “wonderful” for the first year and a half, then went “a little bonkers.” The trainer was there to help re-socialize him. As I went after my own dog, I heard her say something about learning how to deal with JJ’s behaviour, and the trainer reply, “That’s why I gave you the control.”

Clicker training,” I thought, and turned to see. I’ve always wanted to try clicker training with Our Best Friend, but haven’t gotten to that point yet. Then I realized; he said “control,” not “clicker.” I looked back at JJ, and there it was. Above the chest harness, high up on his neck: a shock collar.

* * * * *

In the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Selgiman, later to become president of the American Psychological Association, was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. In a behavioural experiment with dogs who were exposed to electric shocks, Seligman made an unexpected discovery. Dogs who could terminate the shocks by use of a lever would attempt to escape shocks in later parts of the experiment. Dogs who could not escape the shocks in the first part of the experiment made no attempt to escape the shocks in later parts of the experiment, even though escape was possible. They would merely lie down and whimper rather than attempt escape by jumping over a low partition. Having learned that they had no control over the pain in one situation, the dogs believed they had no control in any situation. Seligman called this response “learned helplessness.”

Since then, learned helplessness has been correlated to pessimism and depression in humans. Those dogs were pretty depressed, too. (In an interesting side note, today these experiments would most likely not pass an ethics committee and would not be authorized. Back then, there were no ethics committees. Psychology was the Wild West.)

* * * * *

Our yard is not fenced, and I was very used to Blackie, who is extremely well-trained, has a docile nature and no prey drive. I could let Blackie out in the morning, she would trot off to do her business, then return to the back porch. If I got distracted (or fell back asleep), she would curl up on the porch and wait for me to come back. We couldn’t do that with Our Best Friend– he ran after every squirrel he saw. One time he took off through the back yard of the neighbour behind us. After 20 minutes of frantic searching, we found him back on our block, just standing a few doors away from our house, looking puzzled and not sure how to find home. We have only taken him out back on a leash ever since.

Given this behaviour, and the nuisance factor of bundling up in winter for a two-minute pee, an electric fence seemed like an excellent idea, but the cost was out of our reach. Instead, I considered a shock collar. But there was something about the idea of shocking my dog that I couldn’t stomach. I don’t know why the collar bothered me more than the idea of a underground electric fence; it was probably just the personal nature of actually administering the shock myself. I kept thinking of Seligman’s experiments and learned helplessness. I didn’t have the heart to press that button.

* * * * *

My Dearest Friend has a friend named Leslie, who owns a large Rhodesian Ridgeback. For some reason I don’t remember, this dog became reactive to chocolate labs. Yes, chocolate labs. She would go nuts if one crossed her path. Apparently Leslie tried everything, until she finally resorted to a shock collar.  That, MDF told me, solved the problem. As MDF uses a pinch collar on Duke, I kept my opinions to myself.

Then one October morning in 2011, I got up bleary-eyed to let Our Best Friend out to pee. I intended to go straight back to bed, so I decided to let him out in front on the extenda-leash while I hid in the house. When I opened the door, the first thing he saw was a squirrel. Dashing into the street in pursuit of the stupid rodent, he pulled the leash right out of my hand, yanking me forward, and smashing my face into the wall beside the door.

I screamed. My nose was dripping blood all over the stairs.  The kids fell out of bed, the Ex came running. He went after the dog, brought him back inside, and we put him in “stay” on his bed. Our Best Friend had shame and guilt written all over his face, the Ex was livid, and I was scared out of my wits. It was stupid dumb luck that he hadn’t been hit by a car, and I wasn’t seriously injured (my nose wasn’t broken, but it was badly bruised and sore for several weeks).

“Leslie is right,” I thought. “I am getting a goddamn shock collar. And I’m going to write a post called ‘In Praise of Shock Collars.’ And too damn bad if people don’t like it.”

The post is in my drafts folder. The collar was never bought.

* * * * *

My Middle Child slept through the first six weeks of her life. Then she woke up. And she continued to wake up every 45 minutes all night long until she was 16 months old. As you can imagine, it was quite exhausting. I was chasing a toddler and nursing a baby all night long. “Ferberize her,” Everyone said. (That capital E is not a typo.)”Ferberizing” comes from Dr. Richard Ferber, author of Cure Your Child’s Sleep Problems. Dr. Ferber believes that babies who wake frequently have not learned to self-soothe; if you let them “cry it out” for increasingly longer periods each night, within 2-4 week, baby will be sleeping on her own through the night.

The first night she cried for two solid hours. Then she started sleeping longer periods. But she still woke up at 2:00 a.m. and screamed relentlessly until I went in. I gave up after 5 days. That’s when I realized I wasn’t teaching her to “soothe” herself. I was teaching her, “It’s dark, there is no one here, and no one comes when I call.” Even if she had eventually slept through the night, she wouldn’t have learned to self-soothe. She would have learned she was helpless. And that she couldn’t count on me in times of distress.

* * * * *

So back to JJ.

I don’t know what made JJ go “a little bonkers,” but I don’t believe that a shock collar is the answer to off-kilter social skills. It’s like swatting a fly with an elephant gun.

I don’t know what methods Leslie tried before resorting to a shock collar. Maybe she needed the problem solved fast, before her dog badly injured another dog. After all, you can’t live in a chocolate-lab-free-zone.

And maybe I’m a soft-hearted fool. Maybe my dog would be less in danger of injury or even death if he was too terrified of pain to chase squirrels. Or maybe a few good shocks would bring back that fear aggression that five years of of love and patience have all but eradicated. I don’t know.

I just feel in my gut that hurting animals is not the way to train them, any more than letting babies cry for hours on end teaches them to self-soothe. The Middle Child is now 14 and waking her has become the challenge. It has taken five years, but Our Best Friend’s anxiety and fears are lightyears from where they were in March of 2009. Instinct– and I stress that it’s instinct, not knowledge, not education, not experience– tells me that shocking my dog would have made things worse, not better. He responds to love, not fear tactics.

Babies and dogs can’t tell you what they’re thinking. You can’t know what a dog is thinking when that shock goes through his body, any more than Dr. Ferber really knows what’s going through an infant’s head in the dark of night. I don’t believe a baby is thinking, “I’m a spoiled brat, and I’m going to cry until I get my own way!” or “No one’s there? Guess I’ll go back to sleep.” I know a dog isn’t thinking, “Gosh, I deserved that. I won’t leave the yard anymore.” Instead, they learn that no one is there when you need them, that pain comes when you react to fear, or worse, when you’re only trying to have fun. 

We aren’t teaching obedience. We are teaching helplessness. We’ve known since 1967 that this a bad thing to do. Why haven’t we learned the lesson?

About one person's view

I'm the mother of three girls, three cats, and a dog. All need constant attention, but only the dog likes to go for long walks!
This entry was posted in children, Dog behaviour, Dog training, Dogs, pet ownership and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Learning Helplessness

  1. Jodi says:

    I hate the shock collars but I know people who use them. Hunting dogs particularly are trained with the e-collars. I’m not agreeing with it, nor saying I like it.

    Sampson was trained on the e-collar. I was against it from the start but Hubby insisted. He did well on it and I never used, except for this one time and I used it wrong and shocked my poor puppy very harshly. After that I never touched it again. And as soon as Hubby said he didn’t need the collar, I sold it and used the money to buy a pair of shoes.

    When Delilah came with all her craziness he wanted to get an e-collar for her and I put my foot down and said no. That is why all of her training comes from me, if he can’t do it his way then he’s not doing it. It’s somewhat frustrating at times for me, but I see what my efforts have done and I’m glad I did it my way.

  2. Wonderful and honest and thoughtful. Exactly what I’ve come to expect when visiting The Bark Park.

    As a human, I can tell you what learned helplessness feels like. My mom was profoundly depressed during my childhood. And I learned quite quickly that there was nothing I could do to prevent the chaos of her rages or disappearances.

    I can use reason to figure out how to cope. But dogs just know that something hurts and they don’t know why.

    Proponents of shock collars say the key is that the dog doesn’t know the pain is being caused by his person. But even if the dog doesn’t know their person is pushing the button, they know their person is nearby and not doing anything to keep them from getting shocked.

  3. Leslie says:

    I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes. Thank you for writing this. Instinct. Common sense. Humanity. Kindness. Teaching is a privilege. It would be nice to think we might all take a hand in learning how to do it right and well.

    Why haven’t we learned this yet indeed.

    • I think, sadly, it comes down to our instant gratification world. We want a baby who sleeps through the night *today,* not in six months; in fact, parents make it a point of pride when baby sleeps through the night, even when baby is a natural sleeper and their “training” had nothing to do with it!

      And of course we’re going to react quickly to what we perceive as danger– a dog that bites, has the potential to bite, or simply runs into the street after squirrels. Unfortunately, fast solutions often create long-term problems; people would rather deal with something else “later on” than in order to achieve that quick fix now.

      • And really, who can blame someone exhausted from lack of sleep or being injured by their pulling dog from wanting instant relief. I get it.

        That’s why we need to support people under stress so they can do the right thing even when it’s hard.

  4. This is an absolutely wonderful post! You’ve stated so well the way I feel about how training should work. I want my dogs to want to do what I’m asking them … not to do it because they’re afraid of what might happen if they don’t. What kind of relationship would that be?

  5. Kari says:

    ugh I am not a shock collar person at all

    Stop on by for a visit

  6. Pup Fan says:

    Everyone else said it all… and I agree with them 100%. What a beautiful and thoughtful post.

  7. My wife bought a shock collar and tells her girl friends that my behavior has improved significantly. The dog thinks it’s hilarious and loves to watch as I jump to her every whim.

  8. DZ Dogs says:

    One thing to note – E collars are different from shock collars. Shock collars shock, E collars vibrate. For hunting dogs a collar that helps you gain your dogs attention from a distance is a very useful tool, E collars are also used for deaf dogs as a way of teaching the “come” command from a distance, or teaching the deaf dog to “check in” and make eye contact.
    E collars are not painful for dogs.
    Shock collars I am certainly not a fan of, I think it is laziness on the humans part. They just want a “quick fix” solution to a deeper problem, and are incapable of training the dog on their own. It’s too bad really, I tend to feel these people shouldn’t have a dog if they need a shock collar to control the animal.
    I don’t support fear based training, or harming an animal to force them to comply.

  9. Pingback: The Pet Blogger Challenge, 2015 Edition | The Dog Park

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