Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)

Cane corso rolled

The video from which this still is taken says that this dog has “submitted and become relaxed”

This is Part 2 of a two-part series.

In Shut Down Dogs, Part 1 I talked about the fact that people appear to believe and say that a shut down dog is relaxed or calm since it is motionless. In that post I included a video of my own dog Zani after she had been scared by an air snap from my rat terrier.

In this post I am putting my money where my mouth is. I have put together a compilation of clips from many published movies in which dogs are either motionless or moving in very guarded, unnatural ways. In most of the examples of motionless dogs in the movie, the narrator says that they are “relaxed.” They are far from it, and it takes no advanced knowledge of dog body language to tell.

In the clips of dogs demonstrating very guarded, unnatural motion, no one is saying that they are “relaxed,” but in all cases they are from videos that are supposedly showcasing successful training. Their behavior is obviously thought to be desirable. The dogs just happen to be scared and intimidated out of their minds.

Most of us learned in elementary school that animals both in the wild and domesticated may become motionless and freeze to hide and protect themselves. People, too! We have seen the careful movements of animals who are scared. So we actually should know better than to confuse stillness with relaxation across the board. But our cultural mythology about dogs–which I must say I have not been immune to–trumps that. It is like the Emperor’s New Clothes. So many things we take for granted about dogs are obviously wrong once we learn to actually perceive the dog in front of us. And when we learn just a little bit of science, we can start to see through even more misconceptions.

The video is pretty unpleasant, but I hope it communicates. Please feel free to distribute far and wide if you think it is helpful.

Link to “Shut Down Dogs” video for email subscribers.

Shock trained dog "Coming to Heel"

Shock trained dog “Coming to Heel”

Dogs in Motion

A special note about the dogs that are shown in motion. At least two of the three clips show shock trained dogs, and I suspect the third does too.

Although some breeds deal with it better, including those who are bred specifically to stand up to high use of aversives in training, there is often a certain look to dogs who have been trained with shock.

These dogs move with extremely inhibited movement, as if they are afraid of getting one toe out of place. They do not wag their tails (they usually tuck them). They hunch their bodies and keep their heads down. They are apathetic and guarded. But their movements can be quite jerky, as you will see in the video of the German Shepherds. When cued to get up from lying down they move as if shot out of a cannon, then pack themselves around their trainer and slow back down. (It’s pretty easy to guess how that was trained.)

Also, and this has been remarked upon by others, in two of the clips when the dogs lie down on cue, they do so in slow motion, very carefully, as if every muscle and joint is hurt by the movement. You can see this in the clip with the German Shepherd Dogs and the last clip with the white dog.

Shelter Dog Photos

I did not put clips of these dogs into the video, because in these cases the humans involved correctly and sympathetically identified that the dogs were extremely stressed. I am including the pictures here as more good examples of shut down dogs. They are all traumatized by the shelter environment and probably experiences from before they entered the shelter. (All three of these dogs are said to have recovered and were adopted.)

Each dog is avoiding eye contact and has a body posture which is avoidant and drawn in on itself. The papillon and lab both have visibly roached backs and tails tucked close to their bodies. All three dogs were unresponsive or avoidant of  human touch in the videos.


light tan dog with a black tail and muzzle lying on her right side, relaxed, on a navy blue mat

Sometimes I find it hard to believe I actually taught my dog to do this!

So if watching the “Shut Down Dogs” video is like taking some bad-tasting medicine, don’t worry, you get a treat afterwards!

I have also compiled a video of dogs in various stages of relaxation, and most importantly, who are being taught to relax using positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.

We’ve got a variety of techniques going on. With Clara I used marking for stillness (since I had already messed up and marked too quickly for relaxed behaviors and got a dog who flailed around). In the photo above, she is less relaxed than she is in the clip in the movie, but I still claim bragging rights. (You can still see some slight, telltale wrinkles in her forehead.) She can get to that state faster and faster these days, and in more stimulating environments.  With Summer I marked for progressively more relaxed behaviors. It worked well because she is lower energy. I also did Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol with Summer.

Sarah Owings used Nan Arthur’s Relax on a Mat method from Chill Out Fido: How to Calm Your Dog. Marge Rogers used several techniques, and demonstrates the On/Off Switch Game from Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. Elizabeth Smith demonstrates settle on cue (after exciting activity) from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. Tena Parker describes the method that got her an amazingly relaxed dog at a noisy agility trial and many other chaotic environments in the article: Help, My Dog is Wild!

A word about classical conditioning and Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. (The link is to an old version of the Protocol that is somewhat out of date but it gives the idea. The newest version can be found in her new book.) Rather than specifically reinforcing relaxed behaviors, the Relaxation Protocol only asks of the dog that she perform a down, and the trainer does progressively more active and potentially arousing things in prescribed orders. Walking around, trotting, clapping hands, backing up, going through a door, ringing a doorbell, saying hello to someone (imaginary), etc. After each action, the dog gets a treat. What it teaches the dog is that when she is on her mat, whatever happens out in the world doesn’t matter. She doesn’t have to respond to it. She can zone out and not worry. After the dog “gets” the basics of the protocol, you can start working in many other events and actions to let the dog know that they are also “no big deal.”

I’m pointing this out because you can see something interesting in the video. In the short clip I clap my hands, give Summer a treat, then jog in place, then give her a treat. She flops down on the mat after each treat, but the interesting thing is that each time I finish my activity, her ears pop up, anticipating her treat. She knows from oodles of repetitions that the treats depend on my actions, not hers. That’s the result of classical conditioning. Each weird action on my part predicts something good.

Summer is moderately relaxed on the front porch

Summer is moderately relaxed on the front porch

I have also reinforced relaxed behaviors with Summer. I’m sharing the photo on the left to show a step towards relaxation in a more stimulating environment than our front room. She is not as relaxed as she can get, however, given that she is on the front porch with a view of the street, a very exciting place for her, her level of calmness is coming along nicely.

If you want to see even more stills of relaxed dogs, check out the cute ridgebacks in Shut Down Dogs, Part 1.

Link to the “Relaxed Dogs” video for email subscribers.


I will be accused of cherry picking videos with particularly miserable dogs. That’s not what I was looking for. There are plenty of those, let me tell you. The point of this post is to show that a certain segment of the population finds the behavior of shut down and forcibly restrained dogs desirable (and makes up stories about them being relaxed). That was my criterion: videos demonstrating that people have illusions about certain behavior (or lack of behavior) from dogs.

Videos of intimidated, apathetic, or frozen dogs are dead easy to find. People post them on YouTube to show off their training skills, to “educate,” or in some cases, to let their friends laugh at their dogs.

I think they perfectly demonstrate what Dr. Jennifer Cattet describes in her thoughtful piece “When is Controlling Our Dog Too Controlling?” A demonstration of the desire to control, not such a great thing to start with, gone completely amok. When the dogs are controlled down to the level where there is no spark of life left in them.

In contrast, what you see in the section on teaching dogs to relax are dog owners who are training a behavior for the benefit of their dogs. Sure, it helps the owners, too, but it directly makes for a dog who is more comfortable in this world of ours. I believe it is a big hearted thing to do.

I hope this comparison of shut down intimidated dogs and relaxed dogs was helpful. Anyone want to share more relaxation techniques?

Coming up:

  • Threshold: It May Not Be What You Think
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer and writer. Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Dog body language, Fear, Punishment, Shock Collars, Stress Signals and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Shut Down Dogs (Part 2)

  1. Abby says:

    Thanks for this post. I only wish more forceful trainers could see it and understand their techniques as cruel, not to mention very poor science with regard to dog psychology and behavior. One of the trainers featured in your video is from the training franchise that the German shepherd rescue I foster for advocates/is connected to. They use shock collars and all of their demo videos just break my heart.

  2. One relaxation technique that I use is to simply observe my dog and click and treat for relaxed body posture, or for voluntary downs, or anything observable that is antithetical to arousal. Eventually, do it long enough and relaxation becomes more rewarding, hence the dog relaxes more. Since I have a dog with a metabolic disorder, who probably won’t ever be totally relaxed, the addition of the skill of just relaxing “more than you were” is very helpful.

  3. awesomedogs says:

    There is nothing more joyful to me than a dog that is comfortable in their own skin. Sometimes this takes the form of chilling, sometimes it takes the form of a focused, thinking animal.
    The extremes, the tense slow moving dog or the twitchy, needy dog that appears excited but is very grovelling “am I right? please let me be right? I’m looking at you…really I’m looking at you…am I right”? those dogs make me very sad.
    Slow movement does not equal calm.
    Rapid movement does not equal happy.

  4. Sarah Owings says:

    Reblogged this on Z-dogs Blog and commented:
    Another great one from eileenanddogsblog. It is night and day to compare “calm and relaxed” body language achieved by force, and calm and relaxed body language achieved via positive reinforcement. Check out Zydeco’s guest appearance in the video at the end showing all the different ways one can teach relaxation to dogs.

  5. I found this information very interesting and helpful. Thank you

  6. Great blog again. I see so many examples of dogs that are called relaxed when in fact they are shut down. I can accept it from dog owners who have no way of knowing the difference BUT when it is being routinely preached by “trainers” to the thousands of followers on their facebook pages, who then go away and tell everyone how wonderful that trainer is then I dispair for the sad lives those dogs are forced to live. Hopefully one day pet owners and trainers will be more educated. I also want to add that this shut down behaviour is rife in the horse training community often due to the application of Natural Horsemanship Methods.

    Can I suggest a follow up article on ways to bring a shut down dog back into the land of the living.
    Keep up the excellent work. Well Done !

    • Thanks, Louise. Man, I hadn’t even thought of horses. Of course.

      That’s a tall order for a followup article, but it certainly needs to be done! Hoping a pro trainer will work on writing that one, but I’d love to help.

      • I have some footage that might work. I will have to give it some thought. In horses we more often than shutdown see aggression or “disobedience” ( catch cry for horse won’t do as I want despite increasing levels of punishment) as a result of punishment used but I have seen shutdown as well and it pretty much looks the same as what you are describing.

  7. Eileen Kerrigan says:

    Oh, man … this one just made me want to cry — especially that poor white dog at the end 😦 If you can watch that and not see that there’s something terribly wrong going on, there’s something terribly wrong with you.

  8. Lin says:

    I have a question , my dog hates her harnas (this because it probably was put on her the wrong way when i wasn’t arround)if I get the leash and the harnas she walkes away from me , if i put it on with treats if she puts her hed in all on her own she still freeses up and sometimes even starts to drool,
    when i take her outside she walks over it (so it seems ) her tail goes up half way but she shakes a whole lot to get rid of the harnas.

    How can I make her like the harnas .

    kind regards
    Lin de Bree

    • Hi Lin,

      Good for you for wanting to help your dog like her harness better. I can’t give specific training advice, but here are a couple of videos from professionals that might help. How to Train Your Dog to Love His Harness by Kikopup and Teaching a Dog to Wear a Muzzle by Chirag Patel. Even though the second one is about wearing a muzzle and not a harness, it splits out more steps and describes ways to make the experience of wearing something very positive for your dog.

      I hope this helps a little bit! In general, going way more slowly than you think you need to with this process is usually the way to go.


  9. me says:

    Great blog. For my little puppy mill survivor rescue, who really needed some help in learning how to relax in her new, sometimes overwhelming world, I add a soft lullaby (is her cue for go to her mat, as well) and massage in addition to the relax on a mat.

    For anyone considering massaging a dog, I recommend first checking out Eileen’s two blogs that cover the body language of a dog who welcomes your touch.

  10. me says:

    By the way, you think that guy with all those shepherds might have been using them to compensate for something? I find it pathetic, not impressive.

  11. Pingback: “I only correct my dog when he knows what he’s supposed to do.” | Lady Chauncey Barkington III's Finishing School For Dogs and Other Beasts

  12. The video was hard but both the shut down dogs and relaxed dog videos are good references. I have been checking out local day care and boarding services and in every single one of them, I hear that “tsch” sound being made at dogs. That makes me nervous and I felt that I have to really voice up that I would not stand to have my dog be laid on her side forcefully so any situation arise that could lead to that.

    • Thanks for watching the “shut down” video; hope it was worth it.

      Day cares are tricky. Summer and Zani went to one for several years, the best I could find. They don’t go anymore, but even though the situation is not perfect, I’m glad to have a place they can go board in an emergency.

  13. Pingback: 8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales | eileenanddogs

  14. Pingback: 6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting | eileenanddogs

  15. Pingback: Shut Down Dogs, Part 1 | eileenanddogs

  16. Jade H says:

    That video really hurt. Thank you for posting it.

  17. Pingback: Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning | eileenanddogs

  18. Pingback: Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target” | eileenanddogs

  19. Pingback: Only if the Behavior Decreases! | eileenanddogs

  20. Pingback: Only if the Behavior Increases! | eileenanddogs

  21. Pingback: My Dogs Are Not in Charge | eileenanddogs

  22. Pingback: Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch | eileenanddogs

  23. Pingback: Dog Faming: Zen on the Move | eileenanddogs

  24. Pingback: Can We Determine Whether Training with Food Is Positive or Negative Reinforcement? | eileenanddogs

  25. Pingback: Calm Submissive | eileenanddogs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s