L is for Learned Helplessness

LLearned Helplessness is an important term to recognize when working with animals.

“It is a condition created by exposure to inescapable aversive events. This can retard or prevent learning in subsequent situations in which escape  or avoidance is possible.”


It is also

“The state of considering oneself helpless because of the failure of attempts to control a situation. Some animals will eventually quit trying. This is why it is important for a trainer to set the animal up to be successful – so that it will gain confidence and believe, through generalization, that since it could solve any situation presented to date, it could solve any situation that could ever be presented. Thus it will work hard to meet challenges rather than give up and passively accept consequences.”

This is the key to using positive reinforcement training. We don’t *make* animals do things. We present them with choices. They can choose to participate, or not. If you’ve ever watched an animal show at a reputable place, what you are seeing is an animal that made a choice to participate that day. The general public rarely sees what happens prior to a show, or backstage during a show, but there is a lot of training happening on and off stage. The animals are always given a choice to participate. If an animal isn’t up to doing a particular show, either his part is replaced with an entirely different species of animal, or a substitute animal is brought in his place. It is very important that I stress that an animal is not starved because it didn’t participate. The trainers backstage engage the animal in different ways instead, so it can earn the food rewards. If an animal persistently chooses not to participate in shows, then a plan of action is taken to find out what is wrong. Animals, like people, all have good days and bad days and on some days, they simply don’t want to go to “work”.

Sometimes trainers make a mistake when working with animals. They inadvertently push too hard and work far too long with the animal. One of the first things I ever learned when working with animals is always end on a positive note. Don’t let the training session get too long, that the animal begins getting bored, or starts drifting from the training. It’s better to keep your training sessions brief and frequent than long and once a day. Animals are a lot like children, work them for too long on one subject, and they get bored.

Animals, just like people, can get frustrated when they keep trying to do something, only to end up failing each time. Eventually they give up trying. The reward isn’t big enough. Failure is much worse. It’s important to recognize this when working with animals. When training a particular behavior, it is important to break it into pieces. Smaller pieces of training components. You only advance to the next step, once the animal is confident with the previous step. If the animal begins to falter and give up, take your animal back a step and rework what it does know, or work on something completely different that the animal knows well and can be successful with.

I’ve worked with a various amount of species. Some are shier species, like donkeys, cows, sheep, and alpacas. Other species are a lot more robust, like horses, goats, and pigs. The training concept is the same, but how I work with them differs. Even before I ever start training an animal properly, I’ve already begun building its confidence. I present the animal with behavioral enrichment daily and introduce it to as many new things as possible. I want the animal to learn to embrace changes in its environment and recognize that new things aren’t a threat, but a new item to explore. I’m setting up the animal to succeed now, so that it will be able to succeed later when I start bringing it into the training “ring”.

Confidence is key. Taking things one step at a time is key. Patience is key. Setting up the animal for success is key. No matter what, you’re going to run into some learned helplessness along the way, but the great thing is, you can work the animal through this and rebuild its success and confidence.

*This book is frequently used as my reference.

© Semi Charmed Life

This post is part of the A to Z Challenge


9 thoughts on “L is for Learned Helplessness

  1. Pingback: M is for Method of Approximations | Semi-Charmed Life

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