'Flooding' your dog - is it worth it?

Sometimes in dog training, owners, and even some trainers, still use a technique called ‘flooding,’ whether accidentally or on purpose. What this entails is exposing a dog to their fear without escape and waiting for them to ‘get used to it.’

Flooding has been around since 1967, was invented as a form of behavioural therapy by a psychologist called Thomas Stampfl and is still used to this day by some therapists. When we are exposed to a trigger, we experience a fear response and adrenaline surges through the body. This cannot last forever so the theory behind Stampfl’s therapy is that eventually your body will naturally calm down and you will then be able to relax and associate the situation with a sense of ease – (ie. nothing bad happened). This is a form of Pavlov’s classical conditioning.

Forcing a fearful flyer on to an 8-hour flight may produce a person who suddenly realises there’s nothing to be afraid of OR may produce a person who spends 8 hours in a constant state of panic and vows never to get on a plane again. Is that a gamble we should be taking with animals who can’t ask us to stop? As humans, we can choose to participate and even ask to stop/get out; dogs do not get this luxury and the chance of a setback far outweighs the small chance of success. In short – it’s just not worth it.

"Flooding is rarely used and if you are not careful it can be dangerous. It is not an appropriate treatment for every phobia. It should be used with caution as some people can actually increase their fear after therapy, and it is not possible to predict when this will occur.

Wolpe (1969) reported the case of a client whose anxiety intensified to such as degree that flooding therapy resulted in her being hospitalized."

- excerpt from Simply Psychology.

Examples of flooding that can be deliberate or accidental in dog training:

Taking a dog-fearful Labrador to a dog park or doggy day care in the hopes it will socialise him. These kinds of places are packed with a whole range of breeds, shapes and sizes, some of which aren’t trained or even being monitored by their owners who are too busy checking their Facebook. Exposing your fearful dog to this MAY result in a success case but is more likely to increase fear and even possibly escalate to fear-based aggression – the ‘get them before they get me’ effect. Walking your car-reactive Border Collie down a main road day in and day out to help them ‘get used to it’ and decrease the novelty. What you are actually doing is increasing stress levels and making the situation worse. Collie’s are bred to stalk, chase and herd – cars are basically big sheep escaping and there is next to nothing your collie can do about it on a lead. It would be akin to throwing a ball for a retriever and never letting them retrieve it. Without the proper mental outlets and systematic desensitisation, you will end up with a nervous wreck of a dog that will begin channelling its instincts into all the wrong things (cars, birds, bikes, joggers, etc.) Forcing a human-fearful Jack Russell into a room with a person and hoping they learn to love them.

Again, it MAY work but it can also increase dog-to-human fear and aggression. At the end of the day, the dog never wins. Is that a chance we want to take?

Dogs, like any creature – when exposed to fear – operate on a fight, freeze or flight basis. A lead takes away the opportunity for flight so they are left with fight or freeze. The Labrador in the dog park can either freeze or attack. The Border Collie can shut down or spin, bark and lunge. The Jack Russell can either cower or bite. These aren’t the only options we should be giving our dog. Instead we should be allowing our dogs to feel safe, like they have options and changing their association via positive reinforcement.

I highly recommend spending some time getting to know a little more about dog body language and recognising the signs of stress in your breed. Brenda Aloff's Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide is an excellent read and has clear images for reference.

If you have a fearful dog, please consult a professional and get help desensitising your dog safely. Thank you for reading!

Sarah Stonehouse © 2018