Learned Helplessness and the Ignored Dog

“Oh yes my dog is perfect now, he just sleeps all day and doesn’t bother me anymore. My trainer told me to ignore him and it really worked!”
Said no dog owner ever. I have seen a bizarre and alarming trend in trainers advising owners to ignore their dogs for issues involving anything from hyperactivity, chewing, biting and even reactivity! What is this about? A dog who has never been taught to settle down will never miraculously learn how to settle by being ignored, he has never been taught this life skill, so instead he ramps his behaviour up out of sheer frustration. But a controlled ignoring regime is being advised to poor unsuspecting owners.

Having worked with a trainer in the past who was a tad obsessed with this technique i can assure you, not one dog we work with ever calmed down from being ignored, and neither did her own. Yet her own stubbornness caused her to continue recommending it, despite no long term successes with it at all. Instead dogs became more frantic and developed issues which were not present before. When owners raised concerns they would be asked leading questions. Some were downright ridiculous, “did you blink when he barked/bit/chewed?” “ yes? oh well thats it. You have to completely tune them out.”

Are you kidding me? I have to ignore my dog to the point that i may as well not have a dog? Having naively tried this under the impression the trainer had more experience and knowledge than they actually had, i can tell you IT DOESN’T work.
A) You have to have a heart of sheer stone to ignore a dog for the time periods these trainers often suggest, some even suggesting 5-7 days (Seriously, i got a dog to spend time with him!)
B) The trainers often suggest then fussing the dog when only calm…so your dog goes absolutely NUTS when he finally gets that attention. At which point you have to reignore them. There is such a massive amount of confusion here! The poor dog is trying to work out when he is getting fuss, why it has stopped (remember good behaviours haven’t been taught or reinforced) and that he was just about to sleep. So he better stay alert in case it happens again..so your dog doesn’t relax at all!

Why should i not ignore behaviour , his behaviour was unnacceptable?

I have seen some peculiar claims by people that advise this, suggesting that mother bitch ignores a puppy who is bothering her or behaving inappropriately, even suggesting dogs do this to each other? Well i have seen no research to suggest as such, nor have i seen dogs who act this way. The reason we keep dogs with their mother until 8 weeks is so they learn appropriate manners, as a mother will reprimand her unruly children with clear warnings.
So we can see dogs don’t do this, i for one have never seen dogs standing ignoring each other rather than fighting when they have deemed behaviour unacceptable! Dogs communicate in a variety of subtle ways, in fact a still ignoring dog staring and fixing is the one to fear. As he readies himself to attack! Instead they may use a calming signal, an appeasement signal or a cut off behaviour. If a dog does not heed the calming signal or appeasement signal he may escalate. We are not dogs for a start. So we do not need to communicate aggressively with dogs. In fact dogs are so in tune with us they can recognise emotions and read us incredibly well. We need to be clear, and to give dogs- particularly puppies the right information.
Say OW if your dog bites you, for some dogs you may find this ramps them up (particularly terrier types!) however its down to individual dogs, then give them something to keep them from racing straight over and doing it again such as stuffed Kong. Because what the Trainer who advises ignoring cannot understand is that behaviour is self reinforcing …

That was Fun lets do it again!

The dog who chews your furniture is doing so because he doesn’t know what else to do. If we leave him to chew to learn that we do not accept that as behaviour, they simply learn chewing that furniture feels great! So next time they are bored? They are going to chew that furniture. This applies to any behaviour that a dog performs that we cannot allow in our homes. Management and alternative reinforcement is necessary. Your dog is never going to suddenly learn everything he needs to by being ignored. The more a behaviour is practised the more likely they are to do it again..and again..and again. Its the same reason we don’t just allow our dogs to stand and bark at other dogs or people, because they are just becoming more skilled with every reaction.

Enjoy your dogs! Their time with us very short in the grand scheme of things. If you are using this technique and keep being told “ it will get better you just have to be consistent” or told “ ohh well that time you looked at them means you have to start all over again.” Then please consider changing methods, you won’t get this time back. It doesn’t work, the magical time when your dog “gets it” never appears. And you are at very serious risk of damaging your dog and your relationship. If this technique did work the most you would be doing is causing them to suffer from learned helplessness by depriving them of social interaction. While we campaign for Orcas to be released from captivity to allow them to communicate with their own species, we have to draw comparisons to ignoring these highly social creatures within our own homes, who are able to communicate with us in a clear manner.


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