Flooding: Treatment or trauma?
Do you hate crowds?
I hate crowds. I hated them before covid, and one of the saving graces of this past year has been the complete lack of them. They make me feel too hot, nauseous, anxious and like I need to escape. Malls around Christmastime are my own personal hell.
In dog training, flooding is a procedure where a learner is exposed to an inescapable stimulus to which they have a learned negative response, to the extent that it causes an emotional response. The goal is for the dog to learn to stop being fearful or aggressive.
Let me tell you, I have tried flooding on myself. I went to concert after concert, not “giving into fear”, forcing myself to “have a good time”. The result is that I started getting flu like symptoms about 4 hours before a concert. It happened so many times (and cost me enough money) that I just stopped buying tickets. As it turns out, without the careful management of a trained mental health professional (and in nonhuman learners), flooding is extremely risky.
So where do we see flooding in dog training?
The first example that comes to mind is crate training. “Let them cry it out”. Many of us have been told to pop a puppy in a crate, close the door and let them fight and panic and scream themselves into silence. Eventually they learn the crate cannot be escaped.
We also see it in some methods to resolve aggression and reactivity, where the dog is put in a scenario they find unsafe, like a busy park or shop, and not allowed to get away from their triggers. Frequently this is accompanied by punishing any reactions to the problematic triggers, like people or other dogs.
One of the risks of flooding in animal training is that it decreases behaviour, resulting in learned helplessness. The dogs just learn to give up, and they can experience emotional shutdown. Humans who have experienced emotional shutdown report it as traumatizing and life limiting.
Suppressing behaviour using punishment is risky. Without resolving the root cause of that behaviour and teaching safe alternatives, dogs can develop a hair trigger or escalate to more dangerous behaviour in order to feel safe.
Because dogs cannot be talked down, understand reasoned discussion or unpack their emotions, their fear can compound on itself, becoming worse.
And while human patients can consent to a flooding procedure, dogs cannot.
But then how do we teach animals to cope with things they find scary or threatening?
We have two great tools: counterconditioning (CC) and desensitization (DS).
Counterconditioning is learning a new emotional response to an already known stimuli. We might offer a dog cheese every time he hears the doorbell or sees the garbage man, thus making those things less scary and more wonderful harbingers of cheese.
Desensitization is a process of repeated low-level exposures that decreases the learner’s emotional response to a stimulus. We might walk our dog 100 meters away from the dog park where they are able to see the other dogs but don’t feel the need to bark or lunge. Over time we can decrease the distance as they become more comfortable.
The key difference between flooding and desensitization is that in DS we keep the stimuli to a level where it does not illicit an emotional response.
There are dozens of different strategies and games that use counterconditioning and desensitization safely to change behaviour. The characteristic of all of them is that if the dog overreacts or shows signs of fear, anxiety, or heightened stress we back off and reassess instead of pushing through.
I was eventually able to start buying concert tickets again, but it is still a rare thing for me to do.
If you see a dog trainer purposefully putting a dog into a situation that they find stressful or scary, or will illicit an aggressive or reactive response, run. We have better tools.
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