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. 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
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Forcing a dog to get close to a object they are afraid of. That could describe almost any flooding situation, but there is a specific practice I have in mind here. It’s the idea that you can just walk a scared dog up to the thing that they are scared of and “show them” that it isn’t scary. This doesn’t work with strong fears, and can exacerbate the fear.
- 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.
- 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:
- Keep the dog feeling safe. (See my post Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe.)
- Use counterconditioning and desensitization to change the dog’s emotional response to things he fears. (See my page Desensitization and Counterconditioning Resources.)
- 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.
Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015
|↑1||Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895).|