What "The Handmaid’s Tale" can teach us about Dog Training

by Zoe Van Craen

Notes and warnings: It won’t be necessary to have read the book or seen the show to understand this article, but with that in mind, there are possible spoilers (both book and TV show), though I’ll keep them to a minimum.  

Trigger warnings: self harm, depression, suicide, torture, and other things from the story are mentioned. Direct mention of sexual assault is avoided, though it is a big theme in The Handmaid’s Tale. 

 

The season 3 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale aired this weekend, and boy was it a big one! For those who don't know, The Handmaid's Tale is a gritty, dystopian show based on a book from 1985. It takes place in a world where the few fertile women left are forced to reproduce with high ranking government officials to produce babies. These women are the Handmaids.   

As someone who always has dogs on their mind (and I mean, who doesn't?) I couldn't help but compare some of the psychological phenomena that happen throughout the show with dogs. Which makes sense, because although our brains and emotions are a lot more complex, human and animal psychology have a lot in common.  

I do understand that, although fictional, there are many people who have experienced traumas that allow them to relate to the Handmaids. And knowing that, I want to state that it is not my intention to undermine or belittle their (or your) real experiences by comparing them to dogs.  

However, I do think that there’s still a lot that we can learn from looking at humans and dogs side-by-side. We can not only gain a better understanding of how trauma and punishment can affect a human or dog at a base level, but hopefully we can also gain a sense of empathy for both people and pooches.

Isolation, Captivity, and Boredom 

One of the first details described in the book is the main character’s, Offred, bedroom. She describes each individual item in her room with detail, including the walls, window, door, and ceiling. There are so few things in her room that this takes less than a page. Within that page, she also describes how there is no glass on the paintings, that the chandelier has been removed, and that the window is both shatterproof and only opens part way. These last details, she implies, are so that she is not able to “escape” through suicide. 

As we later find out, Offred (called June in the show) and the other Handmaids have to live through many atrocities. Any of these traumas could (and most likely do) lead the girls towards depression and thoughts of suicide. But for now, I’m specifically going to focus on the feelings of isolation and boredom created by their captive environment. 

There is overwhelming evidence linking boredom and isolation to depression (source 1, 2, 3). In fact, solitary confinement in prisons is often considered "cruel and inhuman" and a human rights violation, with the U.N. attempting to make it illegal worldwide (source). Lack of stimulation and novelty in an environment has even been linked to fish (FISH!!!) getting depressed (source). So, it’s likely that some of the Handmaids’ depression is caused by their sparse, sterile living spaces.  

I talk about this because I believe a lot of people underestimate the value of enrichment for their pets. People sometimes forget that dogs need more than the confines of our empty, unchanging homes and yards to keep them happy. Although your dog is extremely unlikely to go as far as to commit suicide, dogs can still become depressed and even perform self-harming behaviors, such as over grooming (source 1, 2). 

And the solution is simple: enrichment! Enrichment comes in many forms, and deserves an entire blog post of its own (coming soon!). But for now, just know that enrichments are any activities that you do that mentally and physically engages your pet. These include sniff walks, food enrichments, and clicker training. 

The show even acknowledges enrichment in the episode “Other Women.” June is confined in an empty basement with no human company. In her boredom, she notes how there are exactly 71 flowers on her quilt, and mentions how isolated rats will give themselves electric shocks when they have nothing else to do (this is true even with humans- source). She then talks about how she wishes she had a “pig ball” to roll around for entertainment (a form of enrichment!).  

So although your dog is not a prisoner in a dystopian society, and perhaps your dog is not clinically depressed, know that a lot of common behavior problems (everything from counter surfing to barking out of the window) are often caused by simple boredom, and therefore can be improved by increasing enrichment in the dog’s life. If anything, it cannot hurt and will only make your dog happier than he already is.

Punishment and Fallout 

As I mentioned above, isolation and boredom are not the only factors affecting the Handmaids’ mental health. The Handmaids’ of this story are constantly under threat of punishment if they do not cooperate with their captures. Punishments include everything from being sent to the radioactive worker camps called “The Colonies,” getting body parts amputated or mutilated, being tasered by cattle prods, or threat of death on “The Wall”. Spies are everywhere amongst the Handmaids, and one wrong step or word could lead to serious consequences.  

And the Handmaids seem to react one of two ways to repeated punishment: either learned helplessness or acts of aggression. 

Learned helplessness is the behavior that an individual expresses after having to endure many consequences (usually aversive) that are outside of their control. It often resembles an emotional or mental “shutting down”, which leaves the individual frozen and glassy-eyed (though not always). 

After their training in the Red Center, most of the Handmaids learn to give up. They don’t put up a fight when atrocities like the monthly “Ceremony” come their way. To survive the encounters, they sometimes enter a trance-like state that dissociates them from the moment they are in and the actions that are about to happen. “Treat it like a job,” June says in the episode ‘Bear Witness’. “Try to detach yourself, see it from the outside. You’re not you. I’m not me. This is a transaction. And then it’s over.”  

This is a form of learned helplessness. 

Learned helplessness is, unfortunately, a common but often unrecognized outcome in some forms of dog training. Punishment-based trainers (often using the aid of an e-collar) use learned helplessness to their advantage by punishing misbehaving dogs until they no longer “fight back”. They end up with a dog that seems to be behaving but is in actuality just devoid of behaviors. 

Alternatively, punishment leads an individual to become more aggressive; to fight back, to defend oneself at all costs, to kick/punch/bite at the punisher. 

This is shown more and more as the show goes on. Characters, like June, are evolving to become increasingly aggressive the more trauma they live through. June started off simply rebelling in the shadows by reading the words hidden in her closet (despite reading being illegal for women), but has recently progressed to acts of murder.  

Punishment leading to aggression isn’t just in fiction, either. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently published a revolutionary study that showed the effect of punishment (both corporal and verbal) on children. Overwhelming evidence showed that, although the children became fearful of the consequences in the short term, the long term effects include increased aggression as well as lower cognitive scores. Not only that, but the children still exhibited the bad behaviors that their parents were trying to get rid of in the first place (source).  

The same is true for dogs. Research from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that dogs who are often punished are more likely to become aggressive. The more severe the consequence, the more likely the dog reacted negatively by either growling or attempting to bite (source). The exact percentage to each type of punishment can be seen below.

So, between learned helplessness or increased aggression, punishments are ultimately more likely to damage your dog than to help. And although it can work in the short term, the fallout is so likely that it is never worth it in the end. 

The Importance of Consent and Choice 

The Handmaids and the women of Gilead have little to no freedom of choice in their country. It’s a recurring theme throughout the show, and is put into perspective in the season 3 finale when June talks to a little girl about what Canada will be like when they escape Gilead. “You’ll be free,” June explains. “You can wear whatever you want. No one’s going to hurt you for reading, or tell you what to think, or who to love, or what to believe in. And you know, you don’t have to be a wife or a mother if you don’t want to.” Choice has become something sacred that the women of Gilead long for, but cannot get. 

Choice is also something that we very rarely offer our dogs. We chose many things for them: what and when they eat, how and when they play, where and when they walk outside, when they sleep, and so much more. 

Of course, dogs need us to make some choices for them, for their safety and wellbeing. I’m sure many dogs would love to eat a kilo of chocolate or run in the middle of the street, but we all know how that would turn out… 

But dogs, like us, crave (and sometimes require) the ability to choose. That’s why more and more animal trainers are learning how to give animals the power of choice in their day-to-day lives. This could be as simple as teaching your dog to communicate when they want to go outside and play, or as complicated as teaching the dog to give a “go ahead” or “stop” cue during an important veterinary procedure.  

And surprisingly, dogs that are given the choice between something scary like 1) getting a shot or 2) opting out, often choose to get the shot! By giving them the power to choose, we are increasing their confidence and reducing their stress, thus making them a lot more comfortable with scary procedures like shots or nail clipping (source).

Are you interested to learn more? 

There’s a lot more I could have said on each topic in this article. Enrichments, force-free training, and cooperative care are all topics that I am passionate about and could talk about at length! It’s made all the more fun and interesting by comparing and contrasting the topics to a fascinating show like The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, I have limited space in the blog format, so I had to cut a few of my lectures a little short.  

However, if any one of these topics peaked your interest, feel free to contact us and ask us for more details! We also love to hear people’s feedback in the comments, so let us know what you think!  

Thanks, and Blessed Be the Fruit.

13 comments

  • Gersande
    Gersande Montréal
    The bits about powerlessness and boredom-induced self-destruction, learned helplessness and mental illness are really on point in terms of looking at dog "ownership" through the lens of The Handmaid's Tale. It also brings up the natural question about the power imbalance between a dog and a human and its psychological effects on both parties. What really resonated here with me were the bits about consent — trying to have a consent-based relationship with a furry creature when there is a very real and very inherent power imbalance is a really interesting topic I think about a lot. I think a lot about this in terms of my relationship with my indoors-only, apartment-dwelling cat, wondering if she can truly be happy when her world is less than 700 square feet within four walls, and in what ways I can make sure she's having the best time possible within the obvious constraints. Thanks for the read!

    The bits about powerlessness and boredom-induced self-destruction, learned helplessness and mental illness are really on point in terms of looking at dog "ownership" through the lens of The Handmaid's Tale. It also brings up the natural question about the power imbalance between a dog and a human and its psychological effects on both parties.
    What really resonated here with me were the bits about consent — trying to have a consent-based relationship with a furry creature when there is a very real and very inherent power imbalance is a really interesting topic I think about a lot. I think a lot about this in terms of my relationship with my indoors-only, apartment-dwelling cat, wondering if she can truly be happy when her world is less than 700 square feet within four walls, and in what ways I can make sure she's having the best time possible within the obvious constraints.
    Thanks for the read!

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