Flooding Therapy in Dog Training

Flooding Therapy is a technique of dog training that was one of the earliest attempts to change a dog’s behavior, or to be more precise, to change a certain behavioral response in a given situation. The purpose of flooding is to expose the dog to the stimulus that triggers the unwanted reaction at a close proximity and through a prolonged time of exposure, the dog should realize that there are no actual threats present therefore he will change his response to that stimulus in the future.

So how does flooding therapy actually work?

Flooding Therapy has been used in human psychology for a long time as a behavior therapy; it is based on the laws of classical conditioning (in some literature referred to as “respondent conditioning”) and it is a type of behavior therapy that has been proven successful in specific scenarios. The technique used in flooding is the “in vivo exposure” which means direct exposure (or confrontation) to a stimulus (object, action, etc.) that has provoked the fearful response.

The theory is that the dog should be exposed to a stimulus (trigger) for a prolonged amount of time in a controlled environment so he can go through and get past the anxiety/fear phase until the point where the emotional response changes (in other words until the dog realizes that there is actually nothing to be afraid of).

The theory behind the prolonged exposure is that adrenalin and fear can only affect the body for so long and after that, the dog will calm down.

Flooding Therapy in dog training actually comes from the same behavior therapy principles that were originally invented and used for humans, when dealing with complex fear and anxiety based disorders such as PTSP, etc.

Flooding Therapy in dog training: pros and cons

Flooding in dog training has been considered a questionable approach and it is not the technique recommended by many dog experts. In most cases, flooding therapy is only to be used as a last resort when everything else falls down.

One of the first things that we should have in our mind is that we are dealing with an animal. Even though this type of therapy may do miracles for us humans, we are very well aware (as humans) that this is a therapy whose goal is to help us. There is no way to explain that to an animal.

As much as our intentions are of helping a dog, our dog will probably see the presence of the stimulus as a life or death situation.

Flooding Therapy in dog training is an extremely dangerous approach, where the dog handler has to be aware that everything and anything, including biting, may happen. This approach is different from desensitizing and counter conditioning that increase the level of stimulus (trigger) gradually; the purpose of flooding in dog training is to expose the dog at a level that will produce the highest levels of fear/anxiety responses, in order for the dog to get over it.

Not every dog is a good candidate for this type of behavior therapy, nor can every situation be treated through flooding.

I would never recommend using this approach to anyone without consulting a professional. When using the flooding therapy approach in dog training, everything has to be set up, right down to the smallest detail. The whole plan has to be covered in order to help your dog get through it.

There are so many things that can go wrong, for example:

  • The dog may bite the handler, which will break the whole operation and can actually teach the dog to resolve future conflict situations by biting
  • The dog may escape which will just train him to fight even harder every time he is in a conflicting situation, because the dog learns that it is possible to escape the threat
  • In case something is done incorrectly, it is highly possible for the dog to end up in a more serious state than before

There are many more things that can go wrong; however there are also a few things that may be considered as beneficial;

  • Normally, it is a quick procedure
  • If everything is done right, it works in most cases

Once again, flooding therapy in dog training is not something that I would recommend; rather I would go with desensitizing and counter conditioning techniques. Every dog is unique; therefore the approach has to be unique, as well. If flooding is your choice, contact an expert for more help. Remember that flooding in dog training is not training your dog to sit or down or other obedience training. This is a serious task that can end up as your worst nightmare. It is imperative for your sake, and for your dog’s sake, that if you choose this option, do so with a qualified dog behavior expert.

With this being said, the proper use of Flooding Therapy can be successful in some cases, but mostly these are cases in which the dog has an alternative response to fall back on. For example, if a dog suddenly became scared of balloons after a balloon popped beside him, there is a chance that the proper use of flooding can work because the dog used to not be scared of balloons and already has a response (from his previous days before the incident) to fall back to.

However, if a dog is scared of balloons because he has never seen one before in his life, it is less likely that flooding will be successful, and in fact, more likely that it could potentially cause bigger issues. Because the dog doesn’t know what other response to turn to, he doesn’t have a previous response for this situation in his repertoire. In cases like this, the approach of desensitizing and counter-conditioning can be much more successful and much less stressful for the dog.

False Flooding

There is an approach that some dog trainers and dog behaviorists do, that they refer to as “flooding”. However, there isn’t any actual name for it, so I will label it here for the sake of simplicity, as “false flooding”.

This is actually a combination of techniques that don’t have anything to do with actual flooding in dog training. In this “behavior technique”, the dog is exposed to a stimulus (trigger), normally gradually and the dog “trainer” uses some type of compulsion (either his voice, a leash pop, etc) in order to stop the dog’s behavior from escalating while approaching the trigger.

Normally, the closer they get to the trigger, the higher the “correction” the dog gets for reacting. This is anything but a legitimate training or therapy approach. This is actually just overwriting one fear with another. One of the (less obvious) problems with this approach is that you now have a dog that suppresses (not dealt with, just suppressed) his reaction in certain scenarios simply because he is conditioned to do so, in order to avoid (another more unpleasant) reaction from his handler.

A hidden danger in this approach, is that everything may look fine while the dog is on leash or in close proximity of the handler, which can lead to the wrong conclusion that the issues are “fixed”, but if the dog ends up off leash or if the presence of the trigger is so overwhelming that the dog chooses to react to it, regardless of the consequences, the result may be devastating.

The purpose of flooding therapy in dog training or desensitizing and counter conditioning and other dog behavior modification techniques is to change the dog’s emotional response to the trigger. This “false flooding technique” doesn’t do that, it just masks the problem until it escalates again.

If you are dealing with dog behavior problems I would suggest contacting an expert who can work with you and your dog in resolving the issues with the best approach for the situation and the dog. As mentioned, this is as not as simple as training your dog general obedience commands. This is a more complex work that requires a good, solid background and experience, in order to deal with it.

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