Learned Helplessness


By Hugh Turley


The front-page article in the Washington Post featured photographs of happy dogs.  Over a year after being rescued from Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation most of the pit bulls had been rehabilitated and many adopted.  My godson informed me one of the dogs in the photographs was not a pit bull but a greyhound.  The article made no mention of the greyhound.


It is remarkable that a greyhound appeared in the photo because greyhounds suffer a similar fate.  Dog fighting and dog racing both involve prize money and gambling. 


Vick’s pit bulls were bred to fight and those that lost or would not fight were destroyed.  Dogs were beaten, shot, hanged, drowned, and electrocuted.  The dogs were fighting for their lives.


Greyhounds are bred to run for their lives.  When an injury or age slows their speed a dogs days are numbered.  Thousands of dogs are bred but only a few survive and their racing careers are short. 


According to The Humane Society of the United States “in 2003 alone, an estimated 7,500 to 20,000 greyhounds were euthanized simply because they could not run fast enough.”


Dog racing is legal in almost every part of the nation.   The Humane Society reports there are greyhound tracks in 15 states with 16 tracks operating in Florida.


Dog racing is not our worst national disgrace.  Martin Seligman is renowned for his theory of “Learned Helplessness.”  As an experiment Seligman randomly administered severe electric shocks to caged dogs.  The torture was inescapable.  He discovered the random mistreatment of the dogs destroyed them emotionally to the point where they did not even try to escape when given the opportunity.   


Some might argue that such experiments are necessary to benefit man.  How?   Jane Mayer’s recent book, The Dark Side, states that Seligman became associated with the CIA after 911.  Seligman claims a talk he gave in 2002 at a Naval facility in San Diego was to help U.S. servicemen resist torture.  This rings hollow since Seligman’s experiments did not give dogs any way to resist random shocks.   


James Mitchell, a CIA contractor, “cited the use of Learned Helplessness in handling detainees.”  Mayer tells what happened when Mitchell arrived at a black site to question terror suspect Abu Zubayda.  “Mitchell announced that the suspect had to be ‘treated like a dog in a cage,’ informed sources said.  He said it was like an experiment when you apply electric shocks to a caged dog, and after a while he is so demoralized he can’t resist.”


The Soviet KGB was able to get innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit.  Human minds can be diabolically and systematically destroyed.


José Padilla, a U.S. citizen and former hotel busboy, was accused of being “the dirty bomber” and imprisoned for 3 ½ years as an “enemy combatant.”  During that time he was reduced to a compliant nodding vegetable.  Padilla is now serving time at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.


Michael Vick is serving time at the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.  Martin Seligman is a respected member of society and the former president of the American Psychological Association. 


This article appeared originally in the August 2008 Hyattsville (MD) Life & Times.  It is reprinted here with their permission.  Michael Vick has since resumed his very successful career in the National Football League. (David Martin, March 22, 2012)


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