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Frozen Watchfulness (Part 2) – SolutionsNAC Logo



Following on from the previous post we look at solutions for your dogs & horses.  In the previous blog article we set out the essential background on forceful training and its implications.  We began the discussion on the psychological condition known as frozen watchfulness.  This is a situation which can happen to an animal if they have:

  • been persistently trained with negative reinforcement, and
  • experienced a significant, break in their normal, natural bonding process such as when they are abruptly weaned from their mother (which we noted is the norm with both dogs & horses).

It is the combination of this disruption in normal bonding – or attachment – and then the consistent application of negative reinforcement that can cause a horse to begin to over-react to its trainer, including demonstrating frozen watchfulness which is a form of super-vigilance of always wanting to be with the owner.

Crucially, we also said that super-vigilance is actually a state of apprehension and anxiety but that dogs & horses suffering from this psychological condition often show paradoxical behaviour such as running to their trainers whenever they see them or by trying to be too close to them, by crowding.  There are no reliable statistics, but the general belief in the scientific world is that Frozen Watchfulness is a largely undiagnosed condition – this is why we at the Natural Animal Centre are so concerned for animal welfare.  We need to get the applied behavioural science related to these two conditions to as many animal owners as possible.

Elephants are one of the species where social bonds are most obvious.  Young females stay with their mothers & siblings for their entire lives … we would not think to keep an elephant as a solitary animal, so why is there widespread belief that it is ok for dogs & horses to live without others of their speciesIMG_2048?  

This, added to our early abrupt weaning practices means it is, under no circumstances, ethical to subject them to forceful training.  Especially when we have already put them at such risk of developing conditioned suppression or frozen watchfulness through early & abrupt weaning.


Why animals that are actually frightened of their trainers would voluntarily choose to be in close proximity to them – rather than running away – is because this closeness is a gesture of appeasement; an attempt to try to stop the inevitable negative reinforcement training occurring.

As a result, although some suffering from frozen watchfulness can come across as being a bit pushy, most are mistakenly seen as being eager and enthusiastic to meet their trainers.   With their early & abrupt weaning, dogs may come to see their owners as their primary attachment figure even though we are, of course, poor at this in practice as we are an entirely different species.  In the case of dogs there are direct parallels to the well researched aspects of human children who never take their eyes of the abusive adult, employing submission to attempt to mitigate further punishment rather than taking what would seem to be the more obvious option of flight or fight.  And we then concluded by noting that frozen watchfulness is a form of long-term stress which is ultimately damaging for the health of horses & dogs – see the previous blog article for the detail.

If you suspect your dog or horse has been suffering from frozen watchfulness, how would you cure it?

Because the chief characteristic of frozen watchfulness is vigilance, then the lack of vigilance has to be the test for checking your horse or dog’s psychological state.  So there are a number of steps you can put in place that will improve the situation & will help him learn to relax and enjoy life to the full.  And if you persist in your efforts & are completely reliable in implementing them they will cause the negative state to change (ie the fear based response will extinguish).  As soon as your animal perceives you as the reliable & predictable ‘bringer of good things’ the fear based behaviours will begin the process of extinction.  Here’s how you do it:

Step 1:

Encourage him to form normal attachments by giving him a sense of social permanence. 

All the animals at the NAC are a working model of what we teach

All the animals at the Natural Animal Centre are working models of what we teach – for instance they live together 24/7.

For horses turn him out with, as a minimum,  the same horse every day to allow him to form a healthy pair bond attachment which is part of his normal repertoire of horse behaviour.  Pair bonding plays a big role in reducing vigilance because a pair bond allows the horse to sleep in safety whilst his pair bond keeps watch.  Healthy sleep is important for relaxation and anxious horses, just like us, need lots of sleep to recover from periods of super-vigilance.  For dogs it is simpler – they need canine companionship, providing similar benefits as a pair bond for horses.

Of course, the first step is not to purchase dogs or horses from breeders or studs that use abrupt, early weaning procedures on their animals.  By not supporting this industry, we can vote with our pockets that we do not want young animals coming into our hands with pre-existing bonding problems (for more on problems associated with early weaning, see the previous blog article).  We work closely with Kymm White of South East Dog Rescue so for dog owners SEDR would be a great place to start:   Kymm has a comprehensive knowledge of the Canine Behaviour Qualification all the way though to Stage 4, so at SEDR you are assured of compassionate, scientific behavioural advice on the dog you choose.

Dog behavioural scientists have proved that early weaning in puppies actually affected longevity; in other words, not being able to associate with their mothers at a crucial early stage in life – the formative stage – caused such a high level of stress that the puppies, on average, actually died earlier as adults.  Those studies have not been performed on foals yet but there is plenty of work being carried out a British veterinary school which shows that severe health problems, such as gastric ulcers in the gut, have clear links with disruption of the bonding process (early & abrupt weaning).

So by allowing your animals to form normal, healthy equine / canine friendships you will be doing him a great service – and may well even be lengthening his life.BeFunky_IMG_7548.jpg

Step 2:

Stop using negative reinforcement in your training.

Whilst negative reinforcement can certainly get you the behaviour you want, it is like repeatedly taking pills for pain.  The pain might go in the short-term – but there are side-effects which in the long run are damaging to your health.  This is why most over-the-counter drugs carry messages on the packaging which say do not keep taking the tablets for more than a few days; after that you need your doctor.  In time perhaps force based training systems could be required to carry a similar warning, but perhaps not in our life times.

You can get away with negative reinforcement training for a little while too but if you use it systematically, then your animal will start to show the side-effects – both in his physical health and in his deteriorating mental condition.

This may seem a particularly difficult thing to consider when your dog or horse appears enthusiastic for his negative reinforcement training.  But remember what we said in the previous blog article.  Negative reinforcement, in the long run, usually results in one of two responses:

  • conditioned suppression – the horse or dog learns to suppress what he would like to do in order to get the trainer to stop the unpleasant training. This results in robotic, dull animals that always give us what we want but who never show any initiative themselves.  Crucially, when the negative reinforcement stops, they stop too – they never offer any more than what is being demanded. They almost never play.
  • frozen watchfulness – the animal learns to become super-vigilant and watches the trainer’s every nuance so that he can respond – again, this is still a form of trying to get the trainer to stop or reduce the amount of negative reinforcement but because the animal appears so active, (‘on-his-toes, you might say) this is unfortunately so often interpreted as keenness for training.

Scientifically speaking, natural horsemanship & round pen training systems all carry the risk of potentially falling into these categories as most depend on the creation of submission.  With dogs, dominance reduction training systems which rely of myths such as ‘being alpha dog’ are equally at risk of falling into these categories.  

               If you are compassionate about animals we suggest that you do not support any systems which rely on                  any form of force, fear or intimidation.

By working so hard at trying to appease the trainer, it becomes easy to miss the real signs of chronic stress.  These are horses & dogs that believe they dare not put a foot wrong – through months, even years of negative reinforcement, they have learnt about the inevitability of their lot.  Trying to get the trainer to stop has nothing, therefore to do, with initiative but is all to do with fear.  It is easy to see why there is such a grave suspicion that most cases go undiagnosed –  to be safe avoid ALL training systems which are based of force, fear or intimidation no matter NAC Logohow good the marketing is … and please share this essential information with all the animal owners you know.

We have noticed another indicator: often these kinds of horses & dogs display a ‘busy-busy’ kind of behaviour during the actual training but will fall into a deep sleep the minute the trainer stops.


This is really quite bizarre when you first think about it – how can a horse go from running at full tilt around a round pen and then fall asleep on his feet shortly afterwards?  But it does make sense if you understand the concept of frozen watchfulness and that the horse is really in a high state of stress.  For more on this see Teach Yourself Horse (volume 2).

Step 3:

Switch to positive reinforcement when training your horse, such as our Positive Horse Magic or Karen Pryor’s ideas on clicker training for dogs.

The science of the affects of positive reinforcement training on animals is not new – some of it has been around for over 100 years.  But the research shows that the positive reinforcement is:

  • good for your animal’s health. It helps build a healthy immune system which means they are less likely to get sick, will recover from injuries such as cuts and bruises much more quickly and will improve (or even cause, to disappear) conditions such as allergies, breathing problems and so on.
  • Up-to-date research on humans on some of the most life-threatening conditions such as cancer have shown that using positive reinforcement in their own lives, has a significant affect on the patient’s chances of keeping cancer in remission

Step 4:

Become a bringer of good things to your horse – all the time!

We knew a horse, a stallion, which showed such a high level of frozen watchfulness, that his trainer had just to step out of his house & the horse would begin to display appeasement and super-vigilance; even though the horse lived in his pen some 50 yards from the house.

Although this stallion would perform all sorts of things for the trainer in his round pen, his terror was obvious if you appreciated the concept of frozen watchfulness.  Sadly, the trainer, a promoter of negative reinforcement training for horses, thought he had a super-responsive horse and the stallion’s quickness of movements were offered to students as something to which they should aspire.

This stallion is a perfect example of the misconceptions that arise around frozen watchfulness but for the horse, already struggling with the problem of being made to live in social isolation, it was clear – the trainer was always a bringer of bad things.  The concepts apply equally to dogs who live in a single dog household & are subjected to forceful training.

‘the use of force is just proof of not having applied human intelligence to the problem’

Natural Animal Centre

So practice offering your animal the reverse – be nice to him, always.  Remember, frozen watchfulness is a psychological state where the animal lives in frozen terror of what MIGHT happen. 

Whatever your animal’s previous training, show him that since you have taken him on, nothing bad is going to happen anymore.  Let him know by giving him salient (meaningful) rewards such as food, equine/canine social company and play when you are around.

This is not a concept that just applies to training sessions; help him build the associations that good things always seem to happen around you.  Not only will this help him bond with you in a more meaningful way but he will learn to let go of his constant need to be vigilant.

What’s the ultimate test?

By carrying out the above steps, you will be able to help an animal that has even the most troubled past history of negative reinforcement training.

We have a number of horses & dogs at the Natural Animal Centre that arrived to stay with us a few years ago in a state of frozen watchfulness and by following these steps too, we have animals today that are so relaxed that they can perform the ultimate tests of relaxation, ones that you should be looking for yourself in your own animal.  A horse or dog that has no fear of his trainer will: 

  • Horses voluntarily lie down – and even sleep! – in front of the trainer
  • Horses, roll in front of the trainer. Often the rolling is a step towards lying down and sleeping in front of you.
  • With dogs, they relax fully & often sigh as they relax (the sigh is often the external proof of the release of a neurotransmitter called Gaba which is released as part of the process of calming & relaxation)IMG_7761.


These are African Wild dogs – we weren’t close enough to hear the sign but it would be safe to assume they have good levels at Gaba at this point.











For us, one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences we can have with our own horses, is when, after we have had a training session, they lie down and roll in pure comfort or our dogs settle down together quickly attaining REM sleep, often in synchrony.  Our horses have not always been like this – but allowing them to be part of a permanent herd and using Positive Horse Magic and clicker training has changed their lives

So if you want more information …

 Teach Yourself Horse (volumes 1 & 2):  provide the simple to understand, applied science of Equine Behaviour – simple, compassionate, practical solutions for your horse.

Meeting the Needs of your Horse:  all the applied science distilled down into the Natural Animal Centre Triangle of Needs – everything your horse would love you to implement to satisfy his needs.

 Teach Yourself Dog:   provides the simple to understand & implement applied canine behavioural science – simple, compassionate, practical solutions for your dog.

And now you have even more knowledge, we ask you to …

  • Share the article with someone who would benefit
  • If it fascinated you, take the leap & change your life … become an Canine or Equine Behaviourist – and for the horse lovers you can now do this through distance learning without even needing to write exams.

… positively influencing the wellbeing of animals worldwide …

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