Learned Helplessness

No Options, No Control Over One’s Environment

April 10, 2010

Joyce Kesling, CDBC

Learned helplessness is a complex behavior first identified by Seligman in 1967 who was studying experimental neurosis. One of Seligman’s experiments found “…dogs exposed to traumatic inescapable shock showed signs of neurotic elaboration and disintegration on cognitive, emotional, and motivational levels of organization” according to Lindsay (2000).

The experiment included three groups, one group, escape trained (ET), one group (YC) was controlled with restraint and no option to escape and the final group was the control (C). Both the ET and YC groups were exposed to continuous shock, but the ET group was allowed to escape the shock by giving an appropriate response and the YC group was prohibited from making any response to turn off the shock. The C group received no escape training. The next phase of the experiment was the following day when all three groups received escape-avoidance training that included jumping over a low hurdle to avoid the shock triggered by a CS (light).

What the results revealed was both the ET and C group learned the shuttle-box avoidance response and the YC group had “great difficulty mastering the required behavior” rather responding by displaying “…intense pain reactions followed by impassivity” lying down and whimpering on the wire grid (Lindsay, 2000).

An astounding outcome was “inescapable shock had dramatic negative and interfering effects on postshock learning” and even those few dogs who were successful in escaping the shock were unable to repeat the behavior in subsequent trials (Lindsay, 2000).

Additional characteristics for learned helplessness included “time course” with most dogs recovering after an elapsed 24 hours, but those exposed to repeated uncontrollable shock failed to recover, a general lowering of “competitiveness (aggression)” and “vitality,” the “development of a negative cognitive set” believing they had no options and finally a “loss of appetite” (Lindsay, 2000).

Seligman theorized it wasn’t the traumatic event but the lack of control over one’s choice to use a normal escape-avoidance behavior, concluding that for learned helplessness to manifest both a traumatic experience as well as removing the subjects control over their environment are necessary ingredients.

Two additional pieces of information provided to Seligman included 1.) dogs continued to suffer the effects much longer than the 24-48 hours he had originally presumed and 2.) “…animals raised under laboratory conditions tended not to recover from the helplessness effect.” Later trials revealed naïve rats raised in laboratory settings and not subjected to previous traumatic experiences were less able to cope because they lacked any previously learned history associated with such outcomes that would have provided necessary information regarding one’s ability to control such outcomes. He confirmed in these subsequent trials “previous exposure to escapable shock appears to have immunized the escape group against the effects of learned helplessness” (Lindsay, 2000).

How can learned helplessness affect the family dog?

According to Lindsay (2000), “dogs habitually exposed to unpredictable [and] uncontrollable punishment are at risk of developing disturbances associated with learned-helplessness disorder.”

How does learned helplessness manifest?

It easily manifests when dog owners fail to interpret signals indicating appeasement and/or avoidance responses, pain associated with inappropriate punishment and excessive startle reactions all capable of contributing to learned helplessness.

Some of the most common cases result from owners punishing a dogs behavior minutes or even hours after an offending behavior has taken place. Dogs exposed to excessive punishment never reach full potential rather they grow unfeeling to owner’s abusive treatment. They may even show complete lack of responsiveness to punishment (Lindsay, 2000).

According to Drugan et al., (1985) “…helpless dogs appear to develop an endorphin-mediated analgesia stimulated by uncontrollable trauma” and “…on a cognitive level, helpless dogs have simply learned to take punishment but not benefit from it” (Lindsay (2000).

It is argued “…an aversive stimulus engages a compensatory opponent process” affecting and reducing the impact of pain. According to Grau & Meagher (1999), psychologists realized exposure to aversive events, even the expectation of an aversive event could undermine learning. The resulting behavior induced the release of an endorphin similar to an “inescapable shock schedule” used to induce learned helplessness in rats. This combination produced a powerful opioid analgesia, sensitizing the effects of pain.

Further studies (Sonoda et al) confirmed “loss of controllability” was responsible for one’s inability to learn suggesting “…the contingency between a response and an outcome is an important factor in governing an organisms behavior” (Lindsay 2000).

Controlling one’s environment and providing predictable outcomes for behavior

When we condition stimuli using classical conditioning we are setting the subject up to understand a specific expected outcome, the same holds true in instrumental conditioning when we use signals to gain responses, that in turn give the subject information regarding whether reinforcement or punishment will be delivered. In instrumental conditioning, we use acquisition, reinforcement schedules, and extinction to provide necessary information regarding expected outcomes or contingencies. With this information, the subject can draw conclusions regarding their own behavior and consequences. One may use continuous reinforcement, intermittent reinforcement or differential reinforcement for other desirable behavior.

It is important that dog trainers and owners realize how predictability for both rewarding and punitive consequences may affect the learning process. It is imperative in training to provide a clear link with any proceeding antecedents with behavior and consequences otherwise; the subject may be unable to link their behavior with rewarding or punitive consequences. This creates instability in a relationship, which can lead to either learned laziness or even worse learned helplessness.

The “lack or loss of controllability of positive outcomes affects not only subsequent appetitive training but also the animal’s ability to learn aversive contingencies’ and additionally one may inadvertently reward undesirable behavior and/or superstitious behavior (Lindsay (2000).

Lindsay (2000) says, “…unpredictable and uncontrollable aversive stimulation” and its effects are even more “pervasive and debilitating, when a subject is not given the opportunity to learn avoidance cues pertaining to negative reinforcement and noncontingent punishment. Additionally, “…loss of control over significant events via non-contingent presentation of appetitive or aversive stimuli results in reduced operant initiative and retards associative learning processes.”

The effects on dogs can include becoming “overly cautious, nervous, and insular” without the ability to predict outcomes concerning their behavior. Additional observed behavior might include punishment passivity, pain insensitivity, stubborn, failing and resistant to learning, appearing to struggle with training often resorting in withdrawal (Lindsay, 2000).

Social and Environmental Influences

In addition to providing clear signals and consequences regarding a dog’s behavior, environmental influences can cause harmful results further contributing to learned helplessness. Biology contributes to the “development of normal and abnormal behavior.” The majority of behavior problems are social and usually correlated with the human – dog relationship. Additional problems may arise from dysfunctional environments related to “home adaptation” (Lindsay 2001).

There are “…numerous contributory factors…environmental stressors, unpredictable and uncontrollable aversive or attractive events, sensory and physiological privations (lack of providing one’s basic needs), boredom…excessive confinement, socialization and environmental-exposure deficits, and mistreatment” (Lindsay 2000).

Instead of classifying maladjusted behavior as “pathological or abnormal,” Lindsay (2001) prefers classifying it as “normal behavior operating under abnormal or dysfunctional conditions” offering “disorganized contingencies of reinforcement and punishmentresulting indisorganized and dysfunctional behavior.”

Most of these behavior problems respond well using cynopraxic training and behavioral intervention. This method of intervention frames and organizes problem situations. All previous disorganized antecedents and consequences are reorganized developing more effective and adaptive behavior with undesirable behavior being replaced by acceptable or alternative behavior.

Deprivation, Trauma and Over-indulgence (spoiling)

Some naturally occurring trauma can’t be avoided and does cause long-term harmful effects on future behavior. In many cases trauma caused by abusive owners and/or long-term isolation “present behavioral signs indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder…and learned helplessness” and contrary to this some dogs may be “extraordinarily resistant” showing no sign of abuse. Individual dogs “…temperament appears to play a significant protective or facilitatory role in the expression of disturbed behavior” (Lindsay 2001).

Dog are social animals and when exposed to “social isolation and sensory deprivation…development of various emotional and cognitive disorders” can occur. Contrarily, “excessive or inappropriate contact and indulgence (spoiling) can also contribute to the development of maladaptive behavior” emphasizing the importance for providing clear behavior expectancies that allow dog’s to predict reliably what the consequences are for their subsequent behavior (Lindsay 2001).

Early Separation and Learned Helplessness

Normal puppies form strong relational bonds with their mother, littermates, and breeder’s family that can cause a “sense of helplessness” when removed from this original environment. The cause is loss of control over their environment while cast suddenly into an unfamiliar setting. This feeling of helplessness may further be exacerbated by …”excessive crate confinement, noncontingent punishment, and general perception that significant events (both attractive and aversive) occur independently of what the puppy does” (Lindsay, 2001).

Conflict, Stress and the Expression of Compulsive Behavior Disorders

Highly stressed dog showing multiple signs of fear, avoidance and anxious submission. This is what mixed signals can look like when owners combine aversive teaching methods and tools. This creates conflict and lack of trust.

There are several explanations for the development of compulsive behavior disorders including conflict, stress, biological factors, cumulative effects from learning and general coping skills under adverse conditions (Lindsay, 2001).

An “acquired cognitive deficit” may be responsible for those dogs appearing predisposed and having difficulty adapting to conflict and stress related to environmental pressures. Lindsay (2001) suggests, some of these dogs may have a “…pervasive belief or negative cognitive set” indicating whatever their choice behavior is it will be “ineffectual and irrelevant” with no consequence in place.

This harmful effect creates emotional conflicts when the dog has to make choices between two opposing behaviors. The results are a “…history of excessively unpredictable and uncontrollable learning events.” Dogs predisposed to this cognitive deficit may respond to “…stressful situations in more arbitrary and rigid ways” and under this influence these dogs may “…be affected by a global pessimism or learned helplessness” making them predisposed to thinking, “all possible responses…will be equally useless and ineffectual” (Lindsay 2001).

Dogs exposed to “heightened stress and conflict” while being unable to act “functionally and voluntarily” are compelled to adopt compulsive behavior as a stress-reducing strategy (Lindsay 2001).


Burch, Mary R., & Bailey, Jon S. (1999). How Dogs Learn. New York: Howell

Grau, J. W., & Meagher, M. W. (1999). Pain modulation: It’s a two-way street. Psychological Science Agenda, 12, 10-12. Procured from http://graulab.tamu.edu/Psy.Sci.Agenda

Lindsay, Steven R. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. 2 Vols. Iowa: Iowa: SP. 2000. Vol. 1.

Lindsay, Steven R. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. 2 Vols. Iowa: Iowa: SP. 2001. Vol. 2.

Joyce Kesling, CDBC

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (iaabc.org)

Professional Dog Trainer

Sarasota, FL


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