Learning to Live or Learning to be Helpless

Uhura 10 weeks (19)

The ability to safely explore and learn in an age and ability appropriate way combined with manners lessons goes a long way with critters and kids.

(Yes this does tie into animals – no worries – being a dog trainer has made me a better parent, being a parent has made me a better dog trainer).

No animal is born knowing right from wrong. They learn through experience and reinforcement. I substitute teach. During a lesson on what makes us mad, I gave students a change to answer the question “What makes you mad?” Many students answered: “When I am told no,” “When I get spanked,” “When I get yelled at for doing something.”

I asked the students why this made them mad. The answers were along the lines of: “I didn’t know what I did was wrong,” and “No one showed me what was good and I ended up being bad.”  I decided to allow the students to take the lead with this lesson for a bit.  So many of these children were confused about good vs. bad behaviors.

These children wanted to be shown what they could do. No one showed them good things first. No one encouraged good behaviors. How can you know what is bad if you do not know what is good? Children are not mind readers or mystics.  They have no idea what is good or bad until they are shown. If no one intervenes, where will they learn?  Now, there has been a lot of talk over the decades in regards to media, music, etc and child development.  Not too long ago I listened to a psychiatrist on the radio talk about how in a healthy-minded child with parents who are teaching good morals and standards that video games and movies have little to no effect on behavior because parents are teaching the children.


Engaging children in appropriate behaviors and reinforcing the good goes a long way to developing the foundation for what the child will become.

Children who grow up confused, punished when they are just trying to figure out life because no one is showing them right before they do wrong are at a disadvantage.  Now what if you are that child?

You are most likely now just doing things.  You are a child, you explore.  This is how you learn about you environment.  Hmmm, what is that there?  It is interesting.  Can I poke it?  What does it taste like? Now imagine every time you do something you are punished.  Why?  You have no idea.  It just happens.  You become fearful to try things or ask about things. You become helpless. You may even shut down.  You may act out.  You may learn the only way to get attention is to screw up and then suffer the consequences. You are confused and stressed.

Alternatively everything is done for you.  You are never allowed to explore in a safe and guided manner.  You try to cut with scissors and they are taken away.   The paper cutting is done for you.  You try to zip your jacket, you are taking too long so someone stops you and zips you up.  You are not taught to tie your shoes and if you take too long trying, it is done for you.  Instead of being encouraged to find a snack and guided to where the good ones are kept, you are stopped and it is gotten for you.  You try to get a cup for water and you are stopped.  No one puts cups where you can reach them.  NO one encourages you to figure things out.  As you leave toddlerhood and school years, your homework is done for you, there is no accountability, etc.  No one facilitates your ability to learn appropriately. You do not learn to become self-sufficient in an age appropriate manner.   How can you grow?

Learning begins at birth and is a lifelong process.  How we as parents and pet owners facilitate learning is crucial.  Let’s move on to a typical small child and a puppy.  Before you read on remember

Every interaction a dog or child has with his environment is a learning experience – even if we do not realize it. (Karen Peak)

Children explore, test, and engage.  How we act is critical to how they develop.

“Jimmy, let’s play with dough!  See the dough goes on the table and look what we can do!”  Jimmy has been engaged in play and shown what good playing with dough is.

“Jimmy, you are keeping the dough on the table – good job!”Jimmy’s behaviors were just positively reinforced.

The next day Jimmy goes and gets the dough.  You find him playing with it on the carpet.

Ask yourself – “Does Jimmy really understand what is expected when he takes out dough? Have I made this lesson clear for long enough that he is able to make the choice on his own?”

Why should we pause?  In reality, Jimmy has only had one lesson.  He may have forgotten what happened the previous day.   Jimmy is young and learning happens with repetition and reinforcement of the behaviors.

Let’s look at two possible responses.

(1) We come in screaming and slap the dough out of his hands.

Now we put the dough away telling Jimmy if he cannot play correctly he cannot have dough.  We storm out complaining about how bad Jimmy is and how he needs to make better choices.

(2) We come in and engage in a learning moment -“Jimmy the dough needs to be on the table.  Let’s move it there and we can play.”

Then YOU show Jimmy where to play and reinforce it.  You engage in play and model the desired behavior.  As Jimmy begins to follow your lead, you praise and reinforce the behavior.

(1) or (2), what process better encourages learning?

Interaction, modeling, direction to desired behaviors before a mistake is made, reinforcement, observation, management, and redirection when needed, when used well can help increase desired behaviors and decrease undesired.  The same holds true for critters.  However, they do not speak our language and have a different sent of inherited behaviors from humans.

If I respond way (1) too many times, I may teach Jimmy not to do anything.  He becomes stressed and anxious.  His behaviors will reflect it.

Such as I would do for Jimmy, with Sparky I observe and manage his environment. I am proactive. I work to reduce confusion. When I see Sparky doing something good, even if I have not asked for the behavior (he offers it on his own), I reinforce that behavior – food is a great paycheck for most dogs.

Peak B

The future of your pets and children depends on the work done when they are young.


When I find Sparky happily making his own entertainment, how I react is important – just like with Jimmy. What happens when I run in like gang busters, yelling and swat with newspaper?  Sparky will begin to offer behaviors meant to diffuse the situation.  Sparky is not feeling guilt over what he did but he is feeling fear at our presence. He has only learned my presence means yucky-scary. When he goes back and eats my sneakers, Sparky is not vindictive, he is just playing. He has not learned sneakers are not toys.  More likely Sparky has learned your presence is bad and to wait until you are gone in order to do things. Sparky needs better observation and guidance from his humans.

Managing Sparky’s environment, providing enrichment toys and activities, careful and close observation, encouraging good behavior and reinforcing it before Sparky has a chance to make a mistake (which is not really a mistake but rather him trying to figure out life) goes a lot farther to teach what is needed to survive in our lives.

I have seen dogs who tried so hard trying to figure out what to do that they were stressed. Some were wrecks.  They needed guidance and clarity.  Some were labeled “Alpha” or “Dominant.”  No, they were confused.  Now they were adolescents and adults making really bad choices because they had no appropriate lessons as puppies.

Alternatively, the dogs were punished so much and became so afraid to try things that they shut down.  They were helpless to do anything.  Learned Helplessness happens in humans, dogs and other animals.

How we address early lessons, from birth and through toddler years and puppy days, sets the foundation for the future.  The work we do when young will make adolescence easier. I like knowing that I can hand my kids a shopping list and they are able to grocery shop for the family (at the time of typing my son is 17 and daughter is almost 12).  I like knowing that if I am tied up and getting home later than planned from something and Dad is not home from work that the kids know how to care for the critters.  My daughter recently said it was nice that she felt she could come to her parents with any concerns because she trusted us and was able to talk to us.  When I am out with my dogs, I like knowing that they engage with me and are able to discern their toys from other things.  It is work, it is the quality and quantity of everyday work done during every interaction I have with my animals and kids.

Ask yourself: “Do I want trust and engagement or helplessness? What do I want my charges to grow into?”  I know what I want.

Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training

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