Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog

Frightened white and cream colored dog under table

Photo credit Yee Tong Loh on Flickr (see license below)

Thank you to Marge Rogers, Debbie Jacobs, and Randi Rossman for discussions about this post. The point of view expressed and any mistakes are my own.

The journey to positive reinforcement-based training sometimes seems like an endless stream of goodbyes to methods I once used.  Goodbye, forcing my dog’s butt down if she didn’t sit. Goodbye, collar pops. Goodbye, pretending to eat out of my dog’s bowl before she did. (Yes, I did!) Goodbye, making my dog back up by pushing into her space. Goodbye, waiting out my dog while she got frustrated, trying and trying a behavior that once got her a goodie.

But those aren’t all the goodbyes. There’s a whole other set of them having to do with something called flooding.

Flooding is a technique that is aimed at reducing a human or animal’s fears. (Besides being a behavior modification method it can also happen by accident.) It is an exposure protocol. It consists of keeping the animal in the proximity of something it is afraid of (but can’t harm it) for a duration of time without the possibility of escape.

Thomas Stampfl invented the protocol of flooding as a psychotherapeutic technique for humans in 1967, although Freud and Breuer described something similar in the 19th century. 1)Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895). It can be effective, and is still sometimes used, although there have been ethical concerns about it all along. But humans can give consent. We can choose this method for ourselves in full knowledge and understanding of what is going to happen. Dogs can’t.

How Does This Apply to Our Lives with Dogs?

When flooding is described in casual conversation, it is usually something like the following.

What if I were deathly afraid of spiders and you locked me in a room full of them and didn’t let me out?

That describes flooding perfectly, but the image is a bit fantastical. We need to think of it on a more mundane level. There are things people do to their dogs quite regularly that also constitute flooding. They are just harder for us to see. Debbie Jacobs of Fearfuldogs.com points out:

Almost anything that someone does to a scared dog that involves a leash or confinement could constitute flooding.

People who foster, purchase, or adopt an extremely fearful dog usually need to confine him to a house and yard for his safety. Just think about it. If he is fearful of people, for him that’s like being in the room full of spiders 24/7 and not being able to get out.

Puppies and fearful dogs seem to be the ones who are most often flooded through deliberate training techniques. Here are some common training suggestions that we should probably think twice about.

Common Dog Training Suggestions that Can Comprise Flooding

  1. Feeding a fearful dog all her meals by hand. Whenever there is a discussion about how to help a dog overcome a fear of humans, you can count on someone suggesting this. It sounds attractive, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of work but it should be pleasant for both parties concerned, right? Wrong. We see it as demonstrating that we are nice and have the dog’s welfare at heart. But she may see it as being forced to be closer to the human than she is comfortable with to get to the food, in other words, to survive. It’s possible that the outcome will be that the dog learns that people are not scary after all. But it is completely a gamble. The other possible outcome is that she becomes more sensitized to people. Then she will remain as scared or get even more scared. (With a non-fearful dog, feeding by hand can often build a nice bond between human and dog.)
  2. Staying in a fearful dog’s space. This is related to #1. When a dog is afraid of having humans nearby, some people will recommend that you stay in her space for long durations. Sit nearby while she (tries to) eat, or even just sit in a corner of the dog’s room for hours each day reading a book. We see this as “proving” to the dog that we will do no harm. The dog may see it as a scary situation from which she can’t escape.
  3. Passing the puppy. “Pass the Puppy” is an exercise that is common in puppy classes. All the humans sit in a circle, and on a given cue, pass their puppy to the person next to them. The puppy has no choice in the matter. She is either in forced proximity on the floor next to the person or in that person’s lap, being forced to interact. When the cue is given again, the puppies are passed again, away from their owners. Each owner in the circle handles each puppy before she arrives back “home.”  A gregarious puppy who is comfortable with people might think this is fine. But for a shy puppy or a puppy in a fear period, this can be a nightmare. Again, it might work sometimes to wear down that fear. But there’s no guarantee. You might end up with a puppy that is more scared of people than it was at the beginning of class. And less trusting of its owner as well.
  4. Going to a dog park for socialization. Dog parks are fraught with peril for many reasons. There may be inattentive owners who are socializing or using their phones. There is the issue of potentially aggressive dogs. Some parks allow all sizes of dogs together and endanger smaller or weaker dogs. But even if all these problems were solved, a dog park still might be too overwhelming for a young or shy dog. It’s a big cage, and there is no escape under the dog’s own power. (Dog parks are also specifically unsafe for young puppies because of transmissible diseases.)
  5. Going to a big pet supply store for socialization. Same problems as the dog park, but this time you have slick floors, lots of noise, overly-interested strangers and perhaps forced interactions with them. There can be other pets popping up from around corners, and they may not be well controlled.
  6. Having strangers feed treats. This is also an extremely common recommendation for both pups and shy adult dogs. You are advised to take the dog out in public, find a willing stranger, and urge the dog to go up to the stranger so the stranger can give her a treat. This is another method kind of like “pass the puppy” that just feels right to us. All warm and fuzzy, and the dog will come to like strangers because of the food, right? Not if she is nervous about people in the first place. Sometimes this method falls short of flooding but is still not that great for the dog (or safe for the human!). If the treats are really good or the dog very hungry, she may approach the stranger to get the food while still being scared. This is often played out by the dog stretching forward while leaving her back end in the next county. This practice can even result in the human getting threatened or bitten, or the dog trying to take flight when she “realizes” how close she is to the scary human.
  7. Not letting a scared dog leave an agility or obedience ring. I’m surprised this still happens, but I have seen it personally. There are some dogs who develop such bad associations with performance events that their main goal, once they get inside the competition area, is to get out. Unfortunately, even if the dog’s body language is screaming “fear,” this can be seen as disobedience or willfulness. The dog is being “bad” and must be forced to behave. I have been a helper at a competition and had to block such a dog from running through the ring exit. I hated myself for being a party to the flooding, but of course it was not safe simply to let the dog out (alone) either. The kindly move for the owner would be to listen to the dog’s fears and help him leave. I have seen people try to salvage their doomed competition run while the dog is pressing against the people minding the gate.
  8. Over-exposing to noise. I wish I could say that this is not done anymore, but there is a horrifying and fairly recent video on YouTube of forced noise exposure with a group of dogs. The dogs are with their owners and on leash. Firecrackers are set off right next to the dogs. The owners hold the dogs in place, and you can see that most of the dogs are scared to death. Some of them are actually punished for reacting. Even if the situation is not as dramatic as fireworks going off in dogs’ faces, it is easy to overwhelm dogs with scary sounds. Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta in this interview by Steve Dale describes a hopefully fictitious situation where someone takes a puppy right up to a train track to “experience” a train. So easy to do, such a bad idea. (She also explains how to properly expose puppies using desensitization and counterconditioning.)

Why Do We Do This?

I think there are two main reasons why flooding techniques can be popular. Techniques such as feeding by hand or passing the puppy seem warm and fuzzy to us, the humans. It’s so easy for the dog’s anxious response not to get through to us. We are providing him with food from our own hands! He is learning that people are nice! What’s not to like? (“Plenty,” says the scared dog.)

The second reason is the “face your fears” mentality. In this mindset, the humans may realize that the experience is unpleasant for the dog, but they figure the dog just needs to get over it. So they don’t remove the dog from the obedience ring or let him escape from the scary sounds. The dog needs to “face its fears,” and long-term exposure seems to be the way to do it.  This method has a long history in both child rearing and dog training. I’d love to see it drain out of existence.

What to Do Instead

I talk about this in many other posts. But to borrow the language of Debbie Jacobs again:

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. (See my post Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe.)
  2. Use counterconditioning and desensitization to change the dog’s emotional response to things he fears. (See my page Desensitization and Counterconditioning Resources.)
  3. Teach the dog behaviors using positive reinforcement. (This whole blog is about that, but see Video Examples for Teachers.)

Finally, it’s vital to learn as much as we can about dog body language. Knowing dogs’ common stress signals will help us avoid putting our best friends in situations that are too difficult for them.

Other Resources on Flooding

Photo Credits

Link to dog under table photo from Flickr | License to photo

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895).
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35 Responses to Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog

  1. dewittg says:

    Eileen, thanks for another great blog post.

  2. JaNaye Bryson says:

    Eileen, thank you for pointing out some less than obvious (to us humans) sources of flooding. What are some more acceptable ways and places to socialize our dogs?

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      JaNaye, that’s a great question and would have to be answered specifically for any dog. But think about watching things from the periphery. Rather than carrying a dog into a big box store, park at the far end of the parking lot and let the dog watch the people and dogs walking in and out–while giving treats to create good associations. And if the end of the parking lot is too close, find a way to go even farther, or try a place that is less active. This post, and especially the embedded video, has some ideas. Good luck!

    • The term socialization covers quite a bit, but I’ll focus on the typical scared dog.

      For dogs scared of people and places, we start first with normal leash walking. Then car rides, and at a distance from a parking lot and stores. Often finding one with a nearby grassy strip to relax on. The next step is outside and off to the side of the entrance to Home Depot or Lowes. Then inside the store when it’s not too busy, as they have wide aisles and little congestion. From there to more active stores, and to pet stores where we start again, outside the door and watching people and dogs going by. The initial emphasis is on short visits, with high repetition after recovery. Avoiding long visits which may cause fatigue and become aversive. The same general approach used for other activities and places.

  3. claire atkinson says:

    Thank you so much for this. It clarifies some vague feelings about unintentional flooding that will help me help the dogs with which I work.

  4. pipdg says:

    I realised a few months back that I was unintentionally flooding my female greyhound. She’s been very nervous of other dogs since she witnessed our male greyhound being savagely attacked by off leash dogs last year. Ironically he’s fine – but she’s become very fear reactive. It was a beautiful morning and I’d taken them down to the only dog beach in our area for a walk. She’d been there before with no issues but that was before the attack. Given that it was such a lovely morning the beach was full of groups of boisterous large dogs, and the tide was quite high so there wasn’t a lot of beach for her to be able to avoid them. As much as I wanted to persist I realised that she was getting overwhelmed, so I leashed her and we continued our walk on the footpath in her safe zone. I’ve been working with a dog trainer to help her overcome her fears on her own terms and I’m happy for her to let me know what’s right for her during the process.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Aw, what a shame about your greyhound. I’m glad you are working with a trainer and it sounds like you are listening to your dog very well. It is incredibly easy to flood them, often with the best intentions.

  5. I suggest you are using extremes to prove points that are not valid at lower intensities. For item #1 you say ALL meals and being forced. That it is completely a gamble that it may help instead of hurt. But if you just remove those items and do it properly, there is no gamble involved and no aspect of flooding. I think you intended an extreme here, but it also may seem to imply that any hand feeding of a scared dog can be bad.

    Basically, nearly anything you do with a scared dog can be done in a manner to be considered flooding. But a similar activity can often be done without flooding. And learning about dog body language and techniques beyond +R get rid of some of the “gambling” there. And in my opinion, your items 3, 7 and 8 are simply abusive.

    Curiously, we do have one local vet behaviorist who does use what we would both call “flooding” with scared dogs. But he won’t discuss that, as he’s a certified expert.

    And I understand you don’t like dog parks, but that’s just your opinion. Some can be bad, but others not. Guy just came in with a 4-momth old, new pup, hadn’t had a dog for 40 years and asked for help. All the regulars helped and advised, with everybody watching all the dogs and the new pup. They explained what was happening, and how pups learn from adults, what progress to expect, and to let his dog pace herself instead of pushing her to play. Over just a few visits, he got to see his dog learning, this morning taking on an 80-pound Rottie for a little play. As soon as the pup got a little nervous, the Rottie just stopped and walked away. This Rottie was about a year old, and had been coming there since he was a little pup.

    A woman came with a young, new pup. As is common, the woman was more nervous than the pup. We guided them into the small dog area, and one person took their dog over there, to start teaching the pup and her owner, without either getting overwhelmed by a crowd.

    Yes, we’ve seen people trying to “flood” their dog at the park, and some we can’t stop, but we try. And, like many other things, it’s mostly the bad incidents that you hear about. I’ve taken dozens of shy fosters to the dog park, once they were ready. Yes, young pups who haven’t yet had their shots shouldn’t be there, but you state “…specifically unsafe for young puppies” as a general statement, and there is no basis for that unless clarified. Your “big cage” reference also seems biased, perhaps assuming all the other dogs have bad manners and keep running at him, which is simply a case of dogs and their people having bad manners, and nothing more. That little pup here spent most of her first visits just hanging back and watching, only briefly coming out, and nobody bothered her except for an occasional hello.

    As for another reason on Why Do We Do This, I’ll add the dog park or play group, when the owner really-really wants to see his young and new pup (or scared adult dog) playing and having fun, and feel good about it. But he doesn’t stop to think that the dog may be scared and needs several trips to get used to it. In a common scenario, the dog runs out to play for a few minutes, gets nervous and runs back to his owner for just a minute of comfort before going back to play. But, the owner pushes him off and tells him to go and play (flooding). The dog then runs under the bench to hide and the owner wonders why…

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Good points, Gerry. I really hope I was not writing extremes so as to demolish them. I was presenting those examples the way I normally read/hear them. I don’t normally read people saying, “Try feeding some of the dog’s meals by hand, or perhaps hand the food to him as you walk by–find a way he’s comfortable with and go from there.” I read, “Feed all of his meals by hand.” This with regard to a dog who perhaps has been hiding in the bathroom since the people got him.

      I agree that many of the things on the list when done with **some** dogs with possible moderation can be just fine.

      I’m just giving the normal cautions about dog parks. Sue Ailsby points out that they can be great places to socialize dogs–from outside the fence.

      Oh, and I’ve seen flooding work. And in the skillful hands of a vet behaviorist I wouldn’t say it couldn’t be on the table as a choice. VBs don’t need advice from me. But that’s not the same as these “folk” versions that make the rounds.

      Thanks for thoughtful comments as usual.

      • I certainly do agree those examples you gave are often the way we hear them. The problem I find is that many people tend to look for simple and hard rules, and can easily take them further than you intended. And a full description of how to best hand feed a very scared dog might take two pages to cover all the possible reactions. For simply approaching a very scared dog, I’ve lectured and demonstrated and even after a half-hour of monitored attempts, the dog said that only some of the people did it right. So, that general topic is very difficult to explain in text.

        On my comment about that vet behaviorist, he was NOT the one doing the flooding. He was having the dog owners do it at home. I reviewed a recent book by vet behaviorists, where half of them contradicted each other. Then a few, like Karen Overall, whose advice was simply terrific. And there is a practical aspect to using flooding and highly aversive methods, which I have used when time is lacking and the dog otherwise would be dead.

        On Sue Ailsby and dog parks, I have no idea how one could possibly socialize a dog from outside the fence. That’s like learning how to play good tennis by only watching matches. But, I do work with some very good dog trainers who do not like them, and that’s okay. I think I previously sent you a dog park guide that has more cautions than you mentioned here, and some ways to avoid issues, but also advises when you should just get up and leave.

  6. meghan says:

    Thanks for this post, which articulates some feelings I’ve had. Particularly, about seven months ago, I realized that Nala was really stressed whenever we were outside, but I couldn’t figure out what was bothering her. I stopped taking her on fun field trips because I was afraid I was flooding her. It made me feel really guilty to deprive her of hikes and pet store visits and anything beyond walks in our neighborhood, especially since she has never displayed traditionally reactive behavior. If I had known any less about dog behavior than I did/do, I probably wouldn’t even have been able to identify her as stressed. Even though it was difficult, I think I made the right choice–she’s such a different, happier, more confident dog out in the world today than she was six months ago. I’m not sure she would have recovered as quickly and fully if I’d kept subjecting her to situations that put her over threshold without knowing how to support her.

    Since I have a dog who turned out to be really, really afraid of traffic, I feel like I need to add–if your dog might be scared of people and busy stores, then getting distance from the store is the right choice. But if your dog is scared of cars, she might be happier in a quiet back corner of the store (assuming she’s basically people and dog social).

    And as for the not-letting-the-dog-leave-the-ring thing, I even see that in local Rally classes. But, again, the dogs generally aren’t having big, obvious fear reactions, which is why I think their owners keep trying to soldier through the course–they’re just being avoidant and sniffy, or leaping around like a crazy because they’re overstimulated. What the dogs probably need is a break, and to be introduced to working in that new place in smaller doses, but the handlers try to keep going. So while I agree with an above commenter that this is a bad choice on the handler’s part, I think that it often falls, as you say here, in the same category of unintentional flooding as pass the puppy–they don’t even know that the dog is afraid, you know? They just think they’re being weird and distractible, and that with enough luring and nagging they’ll come back and decide that this activity is fun. Or something. Um, does that make sense?

    Sorry for the long comment! I guess I have a lot to say about this topic, too!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Really, really good point about traffic vs stores. Sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two monsters until we can get away. Great point that not every dog will be happy “at the edge of the parking lot” as I described. The place I was visualizing was actually right next to a busy street!

      I’m really glad no one has chided me for unavoidable situations like vet visits. Those can involve flooding too, and are soften necessary whether the dog is ready for them or not. I try to distract the dog, with food if she will take it, and get it over with fast.

      It seems like a tossup whether more damage is done with deliberate flooding techniques or accidental-minor-flooding-because-we-can’t-read-our-dogs. There is so incredibly much of the latter. I’ve done it plenty, and probably STILL do it at times. It’s their strength and downfall that dogs are so forgiving of us…

  7. Since you’re talking about flooding, I wonder how many dog owners (and trainers) prepare a dog for a visit to the vet? From “physical exams” at home, to in a strange room, to up on a table, to visits just to the vet’s waiting room. As a very unusual situation with strange odours and people, it can so easily overwhelm many dogs, normally scared or not.

  8. nickynockynoo says:

    Thanks, I’m so glad you posted this Eileen. I seem to have made a pigs ear of trying my best.

    George was already used to household noises when we brought him home 5 years ago, thanks to an excellent breeder. He never batted an eyelid at anything. About a year ago, we needed a new vacuum. Of course, the new one has a different motor noise. George went bonkers when it was switched on. We began with hubby using it upstairs and me feeding treats downstairs. Eventually I can manage to turn it on downstairs by having it behind a babygate and switching it on at the socket with George beside me. A few treats as soon as I switch it on and then he’s ok. That’s ok unless I have to stop it. Rinse & repeat.

    Then the washing machine bearings started to go. What a noise that made. No bother from George though, well not until we replaced it. Even with him 2 rooms away, he was pacing and digging. I have taken the easy option. I now have a routine of putting the dogs in the car, coming back into the house and turning on the W/M and taking to dogs for a nice walk.

    Yesterday, I came home to find my hubby rearranging his study. He told me he had vacuumed behind everything as he moved it so it had been turned on and off several times and George wasn’t bothered at all. I wonder if I have trained George to think he’s expected to bark at the vacuum? I’d love to know what you think.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Well that’s a good one, Nicola! This is really beyond my expertise but some possibilities: something else bothers George when you vacuum (and not when your husband does); George got reinforced for barking at some point rather than conditioned regarding the vacuum; George is demand barking when you vacuum? Obviously I don’t have enough info to know. I know you read your dogs well.

      Anybody more experienced have any ideas? Gerry are you still following?

      • Most such questions are not solved by expertise, but by asking the dog. If a situation is puzzling, you need to simplify and control the variables. Also bearing in mind that some behaviors may initially form in response to anxiety, but may persist long after the anxiety is gone. I had a severe resource guarder who was biting people and attacking dogs, but had no anxiety remaining. He had just never learned how to play differently and thought his current behavior was correct, so only three days later the issue was gone.

        So, come up with some theories and question your assumptions. Change the scenario in ways to prove or disprove them. And, prepare for some surprises! Examine also any other things he’s afraid of. Try sounds and sound effects on your computer, and any other noises you can find or make. A few dogs are highly reactive to either very high or low pitched sounds, and it’s hard to desensitize unless you can create those sounds on demand. Or, there’s nothing really there any more, except for your presence, so change that, and also modify what you do when he’s reacting.

  9. nickynockynoo says:

    Thanks for your replies.

    Eileen, I’m pretty sure I have reinforced rather than conditioned. A little knowledge is dangerous, as they say. If it’s demand barking, I can live with that, so long as he’s not stressed. This leads me on nicely to Gerry’s reply. Wow, you’ve given me plenty to think about, thanks. I’ll start by videoing it and put my lateral thinking cap on.

  10. nickynockynoo says:

    I thought I’d update you on Zoe, our 10 yr Lab, and her noise aversion. A couple of years ago, she suddenly became fearful of thunder, fireworks and our log fire.

    We began with a VDU in the fireplace running an open fire screensaver. I don’t think she even noticed it, LOL. Next for several evenings I burned 30 tea lights there. She began to ignore the rattle of the match box, which had previously sent her scurrying upstairs. Then, instead of burning crackling logs, we used compressed sawdust logs. She wouldn’t stay in the room but was quite happy to walk through to settle in the study. As it’s a while since we did this, I shall begin again with the tea lights and use Gerry’s suggestion of downloading crackling noises with the sawdust logs.

    Hopefully we can burn some real logs this year as we literally have a shed load. I’ll keep you posted.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      That’s a cool progression! I hope you can work up to real logs, too. Do keep us posted here. I think that would be a nice little story to publish, especially if you can get all the way up to real logs with a happy Zoe.

      • Eileen, so pleased to tell you how well Zoe is doing with our open fire. Several times she has come and cuddled me on the hearth rug! I have never encouraged her with treats, however she does know they are always in my pocket. We often manage a few minutes before treats appear. Some classical conditioning with matches brings her running now. Such a change from her scurrying upstairs.
        We have decided to leave the DS/CC at this. Zoe will be 12 in April. She will have to cope with things we can’t control, ie thunder and fireworks. We shall continue to use the quiet burning “Heat Logs” for the rest of her life.Bless her, she never used to bat an eyelid with thunder or any noise whilst our old GSD used to try and climb into the dishwasher or any small space.

        Hubby took a photo this evening. I’ll email it to you tomorrow.

        • Eileen Anderson says:

          Classical conditioning with matches, how wonderful! I love your progress, and also think that’s a practical decision not to work it too hard. Sounds like you have a nice solution. Thanks so much for sharing it!

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  12. rachael para says:

    excellent and much needed

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  15. Charise F Bell says:

    This is a fantastic article. I will be sharing on Facebook (assuming that’s ok) so all my dog friends can see it. It will be especially useful for friends in rescue. They seem to employ most of the flooding techniques to get scared dogs to get used to being with humans. Our largest city shelter just initiated a program to get kids to read to dogs – – fantastic as long as the dogs aren’t afraid in the first place. I appreciate the suggestions about what to do instead. It’s very discouraging to hear you’ve been “doing it wrong” when there’s no instruction on how to do it right.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Hi Charise and sorry for the delayed response. Yes absolutely, share the article anywhere you like. These flooding behaviors seem so natural to us; I totally understand why they can seem so benign. Really good point about the kids reading to dogs program. That’s one of the least intrusive ideas out there, but you are right: it could still be very hard on a dog who was scared. Thanks for your kind words.

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