Without knowledge and understanding, learned helplessness can be interpreted as ‘good’ behaviour. It’s awful to witness and is literally the dog giving up completely to whatever their fate may be, they have gone way beyond the ability to process or fight against the level of distress they are experiencing.
Learned helplessness is not limited to classic situations of abuse though and it can be a result of flooding through problematic training methods. Flooding is a dated method that used with the idea that exposure to triggers would cause habituation. It was used within human psychology for a long time and has now been discarded. Unfortunately, flooding is still used in dog training at times.
To understand flooding, we also need to know about coping threshold. The term threshold means the dog’s ability to cope. When a dog is below threshold they are relaxed, interested and calm. If a trigger is introduced their emotional state will start to change, as their SNS begins its stress response. The dog’s emotional state heads for distress and when they reach their threshold the physical response of fight, flight or freeze will occur. At the exact point the response happens, the dog has gone beyond their threshold (their ability to cope) and as we already know it can take up to 72 hours to be reversed fully – which means the dog will be in a distressed state for a long time after he goes over threshold.
Flooding is based on the idea that a dog will just get used to the trigger and cease being scared of it. However, the truth is that the dog simply becomes completely overwhelmed with fear and gives up. Because the overwhelm results in learned helplessness, the dog is assumed to have got used to the trigger, though in reality the dog is more fearful of it than ever.
By particularly brutal methods, a second thing added to this worrying treatment of scared dogs is punishment. For example, a dog may be scared of something, taken right over threshold then hurt or shocked for the symptoms of fear – his behaviour. The dog may then go into a state of learned helplessness and the person delivering such brutality thinks they have eliminated the behaviour. Unfortunately, often so does the dog’s guardian, and the trainer is further considered an expert in their field.