Help for the “shut-down” dog

Dogs that freeze, flatten to the ground, or act like they’re “just not there” have essentially shut down. Here’s how to recognize the signs, why they happen, and what to do to help.

Canine anxiety can be tricky to understand and treat. Dogs show stress in a variety of ways, from trembling and cowering to growling and whining. Alternatively, they may totally freeze, flatten themselves on the ground, or seem “empty”, which are indications they have completely shut down. Recognizing the signs of a shut-down dog, and why he’s experiencing such extreme anxiety, are the first steps to helping him.

What causes a dog to shut down?

There are a variety of reasons a dog may shut down. Puppies that are not properly socialized by being introduced to a variety of people, places and things can grow up afraid of the world they live in. Isolation from friendly people and positive social situations can also lead to a dog becoming shut down or scared. This is especially true for dogs raised in puppy mills or who live in backyards without any human interaction or empathy.

Dogs who are trained with harsh or intolerant techniques often develop learned helplessness; they recognize there is no way out of a negative situation, so they just take it because they feel helpless to do anything else. They become fearful and tolerate anything that happens to them because they feel the alternative may be worse.

How to know if your dog is shut down

This can be very tricky for dog parents who are new to understanding canine behavior and body language. Even professional trainers can miss the signs of a shut-down dog. Below are a few behaviors that can help determine if a dog is shut down. These are especially important to understand if you have just adopted a rescue or shelter dog and don’t know anything about his background.

  1. He seems “empty”: If a dog acts and looks like he’s just not there, it may indicate he is in complete shutdown. You might look at the dog and notice he has a glazed expression and is unresponsive to you or his environment.
  2. He’s frozen in place: A dog that just freezes up and doesn’t budge can also be showing fear. He seems to be locked in place, and if you try to move him, he may panic as if you are about to do him harm.
  3. He’s having a panic attack: These dogs move rapidly, as if the world was about to end. This behaviour is much more intense than typical pacing. They may actually run, try to dig to escape, can go through windows and eat through walls.
  4. He doesn’t respond, even to kindness: This behavior tends to be tricky for people to grasp. A typical well-adjusted dog will respond affectionately to kind words, gestures and touch. A shut-down dog won’t respond and may even move away.
  5. He “doesn’t listen”: Often, dog parents will think their canines aren’t listening to behavior requests or cues because they’re being disobedient. Often, though, it’s a sign the dog is stressed and beginning to shut down emotionally.

Tips for helping and training a shut-down dog

After a medical workup at the vet’s office, behavior modification is the next step in his overall treatment plan. Your best bet is to work with a positive dog trainer who is well-versed in helping fearful animals. A good trainer can teach you confidence-building activities that will help your dog build up his self-esteem. He or she will also be able to outline a good behavior modification program specific to your dog’s needs.

Here are some additional tips to keep you on the right track:

  • Understand that training a shut-down dog is about focusing not on his behaviors, but on his emotional state.
  • Keep in mind that your main goals are to help your dog feel safe and secure, and to build his trust in you.
  • When you are interacting with him, stay positive and happy.
  • Do not reprimand your dog, but set him up to be successful in life.

Whether a dog is only mildly anxious or is completely shut down, it is crucial to his well-being to seek both veterinary and behavioral assistance. If you happen to have adopted a dog that is completely shut down, you don’t have to be alone on your journey to helping him become happy and balanced. Being patient and surrounding yourself with the right professionals can be a life-changer for him.