Understanding Shutdown In Dogs

Dogs become distracted just like us when something particularly good or scary is around. They can get totally caught up in a moment where everything else simply disappears, us included, this is called shutdown. There are many different degrees of shutdown from mild distraction right to off the scale reactivity. Understanding how to recognise shutdown and work through mild distractions will help you manage your dog more effectively.

Shutdown is characterised by an intense focus on the distraction, the dog will usually be exhibiting the following behaviours.

  • Refusal to eat
  • Intense barking
  • Lunging on the lead
  • Will not respond to verbal cues
  • Will not respond to punishment
  • Extreme stillness, almost in a trance-like state

During this time a dog is not able to process any external information, nothing you do will make any difference to stopping the behaviour. Sadly though what occurs within a dog during shutdown is internal satisfaction. So, the more often a dog goes into shutdown usually the more intrenched the behaviour becomes. Usually, the only way to make any difference during shutdown is to allow the dog to interact with the distraction or to move away from it. Shutdown usually occurs in two scenarios, when a dog is very excited or very fearful.

Excitability shutdown is often related to poor impulse control. It mostly occurs around other dogs and visitors to the home where the dog has been inadequately prepared and trained in such scenarios. Often dogs, even when given the freedom to interact with the distraction, are described as ‘full-on’ and ‘hyper’. Lots of structured time around the distraction can often help such dogs become calmer. For example, allowing your ‘hyper’ dog to interact with other confident well socialised dogs with the purpose of training will reduce the urgency and desperation your dog may feel when he sees another dog.

The best way to train such dogs is through a combination of supervised access to the distraction and shaping any calm behaviour and attention by way of very high-value rewards. For dogs prone to shutdown around other dogs it is vital to pair the dog with another dog who will not be scared and to move around rather than standing stationary. Moving around cuts off the desperation with distractions along the way allowing for some open spaces in which to call and reward your dog.

Base level obedience when there are no distractions or at a distance from the distraction will go a long way to helping your dog learn how to behave around distractions. I would also recommend hand feeding your dogs’ meals in such instances to have as much leverage over your dog as possible.

Fearful shutdown often occurs because of inappropriate or inadequate socialisation and/or traumatic events. Dogs continued to be placed in situations where they shutdown due to fear can lead to aggression. Situations should be set up where the dog is exposed to the fear at a ‘safe distance’ where shutdown is not occurring, rewarding any relaxed behaviour by moving away from the distraction is an easy way to help such a dog. Approaches and retreats can be repeated in this manner but it is essential that the situation is set up and controlled for the fearful dog. While such training is happening it is best to completely avoid situations in which the dog is exposed to the fearful distraction in uncontrolled situations.

The examples above are by no means exhaustive, excitement and fear can both lead to aggression and professional guidance should be obtained if your dogs’ shutdown is beginning to affect their quality of life or is placing others at risk of harm.

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