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Canine Emotional Shutdown

In this blog I am going to take a look at emotional shutdown in dogs. It is a sad topic, but one which really is not talked about enough. When seeking help, conflicting advice is often given, and as a guardian trying to sift through it all, it can be very difficult to know what to do and who to listen to. Although advice is always offered with the very best of intentions, it is not always accurate, and can lead to placing pressure on an already frightened dog, resulting in a real risk of flooding.

First, let’s have a look at why dogs might be susceptible to emotional shutdown.

Emotional shutdown is commonly seen in dogs from (but not limited to) the following backgrounds:

-rescues from puppy mill situations

-those coming from homes where they have been abused and mistreated

-those with a total lack of puppyhood socialisation

-those which have been passed around from owner to owner

-those which have been used for dogfighting

-those which may be grieving for a person, dog, or other animal

-those which have received little or no human interaction or kindness

-those which have been tethered or isolated outside

-those which have been confined or crated for extensive periods of time

-those which have been repeatedly left to “cry it out” when encountering separation related problems

-those being continuously exposed to triggers with little or no respite

These types of traumas can cause a dog to shut down completely because of the overwhelming belief that no matter what they do and no matter how hard they try, they cannot help themselves. The dog will attempt to communicate his distress and make himself understood to save himself from the situation, but when he fails, he learns that there is no point in even trying; he will shut down both physically and emotionally, accepting whatever his fate may be through learned helplessness. This is extremely distressing for both the dog and for us to bear witness to. Sadly, it is easy for a dog to reach this depth of despair, but it is very difficult to repair the damage. It takes time, patience, and lots of space for the dog, alongside kind and careful rehabilitation.

Force and dominance-based training techniques which utilise fear and pain can also cause the same result. Perfectly normal, everyday behaviours such as barking, growling, chewing etc are often labelled as bad behaviours, and the way in which these are perceived as a challenge to human authority can be extremely damaging. Aversive tools, physical punishment, threats and intimidation are employed to cause fear and stress to suppress the dog’s efforts to communicate, and prevent them from trying to be the “pack leader” or “gain the upper hand”. This style of training can lead to high levels of fear, defensiveness, and aggression, but can also lead to emotional shutdown and learned helplessness. Frightening the dog into submission does nothing to help the dog learn, but will only cause anxiety and confusion, and he will begin to fear for his life.

Having discussed the various forms of trauma which may lead to emotional shutdown, it is important to note that this severe state is not exclusive to dogs which have suffered in such circumstances. Puppies which have been well-bred, have received appropriate socialisation, and have generally had a good start in life, or indeed, even those which we have no background history for at all, are also susceptible. Some, despite a positive upbringing and no history of trauma, abuse or neglect, simply do not develop the skills and ability to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life.

A single event resulting in a negative experience for the dog can be enough to trigger a fearful reaction, and if this isn’t addressed appropriately and early on, it can lead to emotional shutdown in some cases. A very similar response can be seen in other species also, for example, when wild animals become entrapped, they may panic initially, or they may freeze, seemingly paralysed with fear once they realise there is no escape.

For a dog, it might start with a car journey to a veterinary appointment for a treatment which is unpleasant for him, and he then forms an association between the car and going somewhere scary. The next time he is faced with a car journey, he may become frantic with worry; if he is forcefully put in the car, if his fear is ignored and he realises that he is powerless to avoid it, he may curl up into a tight ball until it is all over. Imagine how he might feel if this car ride were a daily occurrence, and his human remained blissfully unaware of his panic, attributing it to naughty or stubborn behaviour, perhaps? It is a very difficult notion to even contemplate.

So how do we recognise emotional shutdown?

Symptoms vary greatly depending on the emotional trauma experienced and the individual response of the dog, but they might include:

-seeming very depressed

-may avoid eye contact

-may appear vacant with a glazed-over expression

-may be unresponsive to you or to his surroundings

-stiffness in the body

-not being able to accept a person or other perceived threat in their vicinity

-attempts to self-calm, such as licking and chewing

-trying to appear invisible or hiding

- freezing

-flattening to the ground

- moving or pacing rapidly, in a blind panic



-may remain completely silent

- may be defensive if touched

-may visibly shake

-toileting when approached

-hiding in a single safe place and refusing to move

A frightened dog will not always display overt behaviours such as barking, lunging and growling, so we must not assume that a quiet dog is not stressed and is coping well. A dog suffering with learned helplessness may even appear to be well-behaved and seem far less of a problem than a dog who reacts noisily and lunges on the leash. It is possible for the dog’s fear to go unrecognised in these cases, because the typical signs that we expect are not present; however, a complete lack of behaviours denotes a profoundly distressed dog. Sometimes, unknowledgeable trainers may even mistake this state of shutdown for calm and relaxed behaviour, often labelled as “calm, submissive”. Luckily, we know better, thanks to science!

The shut-down dog may attempt to carry out what is being asked of him, but his body language will reveal his true, emotional state. He may seem to be coping one minute, but may shut down in another situation when faced with extreme stress; it is vital that we get to grips with recognising and understanding body language so that we can protect our dogs from ever reaching this level of emotional turmoil.

Also, be aware that just because your dog exhibits signs of stress around you but not someone else, it does not mean that your dog feels any more comfortable when with them- he is likely to be suppressing his feelings and the behaviours which communicate his internal state.

We owe it to our dogs to always put their needs first and foremost as far as we possibly can and seek veterinary advice, medical intervention, and help from a good, qualified professional behaviourist when necessary. These dogs need time and patience in abundance, and all pressure removed so that they can decompress and learn to feel safe. The dog should dictate the pace of progress; it takes as long as it takes.

Below are links to a couple of excellent resources, both written by the wonderful Eileen Anderson. They explain how to help your dog feel safe, while flagging up ways in which we might inadvertently place pressure on them.

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Ingrid Lewis
Ingrid Lewis

Time, patience and space to just be for as long as it takes. From experience I 100% agree with this. It is so rewarding to see a shut down dog learn, grow and develop. The bond you will develop is incredible and so beautiful.

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