The phrase “shutting down” has been used for a while in dog behavior. It usually refers in situations where the dog has just become so overstimulated by stress or fear that it becomes unresponsive. I was recently contacted by an adopter that is attempting to do some pretty advanced training with her new dog and she mentioned that he seemed “exhausted” after a relatively short period and would not even take food from her anymore. This dog isn’t exhausted, he is shut down. She is most likely introducing too much, too quickly, or making training sessions go too long, or throwing too much at him at once and he is having a hard time coping with all of it, so he just turns off. This can happen with fearful or hypervigilant dogs as well, dogs that are so overwhelmed by what’s going on around them that they just can’t process the environment anymore.
The other day I discovered that shutting down applies to more than that when it comes to working with dogs. I learned that *I* can shut down while interacting with them, too. I was going out for a walk and discovered my foster Hailey to be HIGHLY reactive on leash. It is frustration that causes her reaction, she wants to check the dog out and I’m sure her pit bull heritage doesn’t help with that. She is better after getting a solid sniff and she does fine with the six other dogs at the house, but she was just uncontrollable until she was able to get to him and unfortunately, she can’t be allowed to do that with every dog we see on walks or at classes, which she was supposed to be starting today. Her behavior was so awful I was floored; I really hadn’t expected it even though she can be a handful. I should have done something productive, should have taken her out of the situation and gotten her back to a manageable level of excitement, should have used the information I have gathered over the years to help solve the problem. Rather than using my brain to figure out exactly what I needed to do, though… I simply turned off. I didn’t want to walk this dog anymore, didn’t want to try and solve her problems, just didn’t want to deal with it. She was hurting my arm, I could not get her focus, and she sat there squealing and yipping and looking quite fierce because she completely lacks social skills with new dogs and I felt overwhelmed and helpless. I shut down.
It’s been a hard pill to swallow to realize that there are huge gaps in my comfort level with certain aspects of training. We’ve had dogs come through here with serious problems that were ironed out pretty easily through consistency and training and a lot of patience and I know that this can be as well. I have had this degree of reactivity with two fosters now (Cody and Hailey) though and… I feel so lost. I joke, “why can’t this be as easy as aggression and resource guarding?”
With a dog that is overwhelmed and shutting down, we try to figure out how to keep the level of stimuli to a point where the dog feels safer and can think and concentrate. I suppose that now, I need to do the same for myself while I try to help Hailey. Hopefully I can, and we’ll get through this together. Baby steps.