Dogs and pointless punishments

Dogs and pointless punishments

Some dogs exposed to punishments that are inescapable, inconsistent and unrelated to their behaviour enter a state where they seem to have lost control of their environment. We do not know how they feel, but if they were persons we would say that they have resigned themselves to accept that their problems have no solution.

In the technical language this is called, “learned helplessness”, and it occurs when animals are exposed to a number of unpleasant stimuli without having any chance to escape or avoid them. After having checked that none of their behaviours is effective in stopping the unpleasant situation, dogs stop struggling and stay still.

This apparent calmness should not confuse us: the animal is not relaxed but it has learned that it can do nothing to change the situation. Once the dog has come to terms with this, it is difficult for it to leave this passivity and learn to escape from a negative stimulus in a situation where escape is possible.

Occasionally, owners not only punish an unwanted behaviour, they also punish the animal regardless of its behaviour. Instead of eliminating the unwanted behaviour, these punishments are precisely what may cause helplessness.

Therefore, indolent dogs with little initiative and inhibited behaviour could have had a history of repeated and inconsistent punishments that may have caused a feeling of“helplessness”.

If we were to compare it with a similar condition in people, we would find high similarities with symptoms of depression. Learned helplessness is one of the risks associated with the use of punishment and a key aspect of the well-being of pets.