What Is Flooding in Dogs?
Flooding, clinically known as prolonged exposure therapy, is a full-immersion training technique applied both in human and animal psychology. For dogs, it consists of forcefully exposing the animal to the stimuli that trigger its fear and caused the original trauma. This method of behavior therapy may bring fast results—but it may be traumatic and may come with some risks.
In an episode of Dog Whisperer, dog trainer Cesar Millan treated Kane, a Great Dane who was terrified of walking on shiny surfaces after slipping on a shiny floor and hitting himself on a glass door. The pet parents were desperate to ease this dog's fears but could not find a way to make him gain confidence again.
Cesar pointed out that nurturing the dog when it displayed fear was only making matters worse. Instead, he takes Kane by the leash and walks him with confidence over the shiny floor. Kane appears disoriented, but in a few minutes, he is back to walking normally on the shiny surface. This is an example of flooding used with success (if the dog healed completely), but watch the dog's many stress signals. Was it really worth it?
In the human world, flooding is used to treat fears and phobias. A good example is when psychologists bombard their patients with detailed descriptions of the situations they fear until they end up losing their fear of those situations.
Flooding in Dogs: A Risky Procedure
In flooding, the dog cannot escape from the situation until it is released. This makes it a highly stressful situation. However, the belief is that eventually, the dog's arousal level will diminish and the dog's reactive state may shut down.
While this may look like success (in reality it's just the dog being exhausted or getting into a state of learned helplessness), it is only by looking at the long-term results that this can be determined.
Quick fixes might work in fixing a sink, but are not common in solving dog behavior. And flooding techniques will not always be successful long term, many dogs end up being sensitized and traumatized.
When Is Flooding Used in Dogs?
Hunting dogs fearful of gunshots may be placed close to a firing range. Farm dogs fearful of horses may be placed in a horse stable for hours. Dogs fearful of thunder may be exposed to prolonged recordings of thunderstorms put at high volume.
While flooding may help in some mild cases, when it does not, the dog may turn into an emotional wreck and be prone to sensitization, which causes an increase in fear. There are, therefore, far better approaches granting higher rates of success.
"Imagine feeling afraid of spiders and being forced into a bathtub crawling with them in order to get over it. Eventually your fight-or-flight response will run out of fuel, and you’ll perhaps deal. But the fact that something can work is not in itself a reason to do it. You can drill people’s teeth without an anesthetic, but why would you? There are other techniques that reach the same endpoint without trauma."
— Dr. Nicholas Dodman
Don't Sensitize, Desensitize!
Flooding often leads to behavior problems getting worse—not better. So what are other options to try to help a dog overcome his biggest fears?
Desensitization, for instance, may take longer but it provides far more reliable results. Instead of forcefully exposing the dog for prolonged periods of time to the stimuli causing the dog's unnecessary fear, the dog is gradually exposed to its fear, and therefore there are higher chances of putting the dog up for success. Gradual exposure may encompass exposing your dog to triggers from a distance or recordings of noises played at a low volume.
Counterconditioning, applied along with desensitization, further increases the chances for success, considering that positive associations with triggers are created so to change the dog's emotional response.
Patience and gradual exposure focused on creating positive associations is, therefore, a much preferable method.
"The use of flooding is almost always inappropriate . . . exposing a fearful or fearfully aggressive dog to a stimulus of which he is afraid of but cannot escape, will make the fear worse."
— Karen Overall
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2010 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 26, 2014:
Thank you MarieLB, I am happy to hear you enjoyed the read! Best regards, Adrienne
MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on October 26, 2014:
Thank you so much for sharing your deep knowledge of dogs with us, who also love dogs very much. It is a great article and in time I shall be reading other articles and learning from you.
Eileen Hughes from Northam Western Australia on November 02, 2010:
Great article, so many dogs suffer from anxiety these days but it is hard to find a cure. Our blue heeler was okay until he had a tooth removed. Now when in car he trembles non stop.
And when we stop he goes and does his business and races back to get in the car dragging me with him. He has enormous strength even pulls my husband over and he's not little. Our vet put him on 50mg of Endep and still does not slow him down. We try to be patient with him. thanks for sharing this idea with us great hub
India Arnold from Northern, California on November 01, 2010:
alexadry~ I personally do not favor the flooding technique. It seems better suited for a prisoner of war camp than for a healing session for your dog. You make a wonderful option availabe to your readers when advising;
"Desensitation for instance, may take longer but it provides far more reliable results. Instead of forcefully exposing the dog for prolonged periods of time to the stimuli causing the dog's fear, the dog is gradually exposed to its fear and therefore there are higher chances of putting the dog up for success."
My personal feeling is this technique provides for a better relationship with the dog and his alpha human in the long run with less chance of a 'snap' back to the fearful place due to PTSD that may be lingering behind the behavior modification.
Outstanding work and advice here, I offer my respect to you for a well done and dog friendly hub! UP and awesome.