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Is That Dog Really Calm?

On a recent walk at a local park, I rounded a corner and surprised a bunny who was sitting right in the middle of the path. I was only a few feet away, and yet he remained in place. I spoke to him softly, explaining that the walking path was no safe place for little bunnies. But before you go calling me the Bunny Whisperer, you should know that when bunnies and rabbits are scared, they freeze in place. This one wasn’t mesmerized by my soothing voice; he was afraid. I finally took a step forward and he darted off into the brush. Naturally, the encounter made me think of dogs.

Just as many people would have mistaken the motionless bunny for being calm and trusting, often a dog who is so stressed or afraid that he is completely shut down is mistaken for being calm. This motionless, seemingly compliant behavior is called learned helplessness. The poor dog has learned that there is no escape from the unpleasantness at hand, so he shuts down emotionally and physically. This behavior can sometimes be seen at a vet’s office or at the groomer’s, two places that can be frightening to dogs. The same thing can happen when harsh, corrective training methods are used.

A colleague of mine who has been training dogs for many years once attended a seminar where shock collars were being used as the primary training tool. She didn’t use and wasn’t planning to use them herself, but she wanted to see what the company presenting the seminar was telling owners. While it was obvious to her that the dogs were afraid to do the wrong thing and many were shut down completely, most of the attendees were utterly impressed with how quickly those dogs “listened” and “learned.” And, by the way, the tool needn’t be shock collars for a dog to sink into a state of helplessness. Stories abound on the internet about abusive trainers and their “training” methods. Sadly, I just saw a video where owners eagerly gave their dogs strong corrections at the trainer’s request, lifting them off the ground by choke chains, practically cutting off their airways. Some would say those dogs were then being compliant. Really? Were they? Or were they just shut down, afraid to make a mistake that would earn them yet more pain?

This breaks my heart. Dogs cannot advocate for themselves. Most are smaller and weaker than humans. When you add the use of corrections that cause pain, dogs have little choice but to comply or risk enduring repeated or even worse pain. Owners need to be educated to tell the difference between a dog who is happily complying and eager to take part in training, and a dog who is complying out of fear or misery. If owners were able to detect troubling body language and would then speak up to advocate for their dogs, the world would be a better and safer place for our canine friends. With all of the subjects taught in schools that are useless to the vast majority of students later in life (calculus, anyone?), and given the huge percentage of homes that have dogs, I don’t understand why proper care of and treatment of pets, along with understanding their body language and needs, isn’t taught in every school. I hope this changes in the future. In the meantime, more owners--and even some trainers--need to learn to tell the difference between a dog who is shut down completely and one who is truly calm and relaxed. ____________________________________________ You can find my books, seminar recordings, blog, and more at and follow me on FB @NicoleWildeauthor. My dog trainer mentoring service can be found at Dog Trainer's Friend. And if wildlife photos are your thing, check out my IG at nicolewildeart.

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