How many times have you heard a trainer comment, “he just shuts down” or “he doesn’t like to work under this condition”?

What happens when a dog “shuts down”?  Shutting down is when a dog has stopped trying to do what is being asked because he has learned he is never right and cannot win in the situation. Imagine if every time you raised your hand and tried to answer a question in class your teacher screams at you “NO YOU ARE WRONG.”  No matter how many ways or times you tried to answer the question, you were told that you were wrong and never told what the correct answer was. How many times would this happen before you would no longer attempt to try to answer even a simple question?

The most telling characteristics of “shut down” in a dog are:
* A dog that is unresponsive to motivators and rewards.  In other words, the dog will not play or interact with the trainer and rarely will eat treats.
* The dog’s posture is guarded and they may react slowly or not at all to commands and/or signals.
* The dog has checked out mentally i.e. “nothing at home” or “deer in the headlights” look.
* The dog might display stress signs such as lip licking or avoiding eye contact.
* Shut down is sometimes confused with “submission.”

It is important to note that a dog in a shutdown state is not necessarily exhibiting what is referred to as learned helplessness.  However, for the purpose of this article, we are referring to learned helplessness.

What is Learned Helplessness in Dogs?  Learned helplessness is a state that occurs when a dog has been repeatedly wrong and doesn’t know how to be correct, and has no idea how to win.  The dog shuts down, and in some cases is almost paralyzed or unresponsive. The “hurt” might be unintentionally caused by the trainer through progressing too rapidly in training, lack of communication of the concepts or inappropriate proofing.

Why am I talking about shut down and learned helplessness?  This is a huge training problem that, for the most part, can be avoided.  Every time you unfairly correct or nag your dog, you risk creating this behavior.  This includes “proofing” a dog incorrectly or before the dog is ready for the skill challenge.

Some dogs that have learned to shut down are permanently handicapped when learning new behaviors that require thought.  The dog would rather not attempt to learn the new skill because of the fear of being incorrect. They view learning a new behavior is a bad thing, so they only offer what they consider is the “safe behavior” that is not trying or giving effort.

Here are the top errors that trainers make that teach their dog to give up or shut down!

Mistake #1: “Positive = permissive”.  Today’s dog trainers are using more positive methods to teach skills and modify behaviors. While this is great, many trainers feel that all interactions with their dogs need to be purely positive. In other words, there is little to no consequence for the lack of effort or bad behavior. It is important for a dog to understand the difference between right and wrong.

Mistake #2: Dependency on luring.  As straightforward as luring can be, it can also cause problems. In the beginning stages, some dogs become too focused on the lure to think about what they’re doing.  Another potential problem with luring is that some dogs become dependent on the lure, i.e. they become the “show me the money” dogs. These dogs will not perform until they know there is something in it for them. This is easier to prevent than it is to fix, but it’s certainly not going to ruin a dog if it happens. Preventing lure-dependency is as simple as not letting the lure become a part of the pattern. Use your lure to help the dog get into position 3-5 times and then get it out of your hand. You’ve now switched from luring the dog (showing him what he could have ahead of time) to rewarding him (surprising him with something special after he does what you want.)

Mistake #3: Poor timing.  Good timing is essential in dog training! Poor timing means you could be marking behaviors, right or wrong, inappropriately, or rewarding the wrong behavior or worse yet, confusing your dog.  Incorrect timing sends the wrong message and prolongs your dog’s ability to properly learn the skill. The old saying “timing is everything” was written for dog trainers!

Mistake #4: Improper use of proofing.  Proofing or testing your dog’s understanding of a skill under all circumstances, is extremely important if you want to have success when showing in any venue. Unfortunately, many trainers believe in an all or nothing approach to proofing.  It is important for a dog’s confidence that he understands how to “win” in a proofing scenario.

Mistake #5: Lack of consistency.  The key to all training is consistency. If you’re not consistent in your criteria, you are not going to get a good result. In addition, your dog will not know what to expect which will diminish his confidence.  You want to make it as simple as possible for your dog to learn.  The only way that will happen, is being a consistent trainer.  Sit means sit the first time and every time you say it.    Inconsistency will only confuse your dog.

Mistake #6: Stepping toward your dog as he is coming to you. This is a new addition to this list because I see the issue so often.  The common place I see this is when a person is playing with their dog. I.e. they are tossing a toy for their dog, their dog retrieves the toy and starts running back to his owner, and the owner, being impatient, starts walking toward their dog.  STOP and think for a minute.  Why should your dog RUN all the way to you IF he knows you are going to come to him?   Haha.  My rule of thumb is, even in play, when my dog is heading toward me, if I must move, I take a step back or away from my dog.  This one simple thing will prevent a lot of problems later.

“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.” ― Anthony Robbins