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

Frightened white and cream colored dog under table

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

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

But those aren’t all the goodbyes. There’s a whole n’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 be done 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) It can be effective, and is still sometimes used, although there have been ethical concerns about it all along. But humans can give consent, and can choose this method in full knowledge and understanding of what is going to happen. Dogs can’t.

Skip down to “How Does This Apply to Our Lives with Dogs?” if you don’t want to read about animal experiments involving shock.

Something similar to flooding was performed on animals in the 1950s under a different name. At that time researchers were looking for a way to cause animals to “unlearn” a conditioned fear. Here’s how it worked. They taught some dogs that a certain tone predicted an electrical shock to the floor of the cage. But there was a way for the dogs to jump to another area of the cage where there was no shock. So the dogs learned to jump to the other side of the cage when the tone was played. In the next phase, the scientists kept periodically playing the tone, but it was not followed by shock. But the dogs didn’t know that. They jumped to the other side of the cage when they heard the tone, and kept on doing so for many repetitions. This is one way that scientists learned that avoidance behavior can be very, very persistent.2)

In further experiments, this time with rats, they taught the animals that the tone predicted the shock, letting them learn to jump to the other side when the tone sounded. Then when the shock was discontinued they prevented the animals from jumping to the other side. This is called response blocking or behavior blocking. They prevented the avoidance behavior by inserting a barrier to prevent access to the “safe” side of the cage. So the rats were subjected to the tone that had come to predict a shock (but didn’t anymore) and had no way out.

The result was that the rats’ escape response extinguished much more quickly. The association of shock and tone was broken.3) Note that during the response blocking period the rats were not being exposed to the actual aversive stimulus (shock), but to the conditioned stimulus (tone).

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 because the image is a bit fantastical, I think we don’t always relate flooding to the mundane things that happen to our dogs, sadly with some regularity. Debbie Jacobs of 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, in a much more mundane way he is in the room full of spiders 24/7 and can’t get out.

Puppies and fearful dogs seem to be the ones who are most often flooded through deliberate training techniques. Here are some of the 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. If you are ever in a discussion about how to help a dog overcome its fears of humans, someone is going to suggest 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 in order to eat, in other words to survive. It is slightly 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 and remains as scared, or gets 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 you can’t even get close to a fearful dog, 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, and 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 interested in and comfortable with people might think this is fine. But for a shy puppy, 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, and less trusting of its owner, than it was at the beginning of class.
  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, there is still the fact that a young or shy dog may not be ready for the overwhelming activity in a dog park. 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, and other pets popping up from around corners, often not 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 certainly 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, the dog may well approach the stranger to get the food while still being very scared. This is often played out by the dog stretching forward, 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 and abruptly takes action.
  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 interpreted as an obedience issue. 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 a so-called trainer doing forced noise exposure with a group of dogs. The dogs are all on leash with their owners. Firecrackers are set off, very close. The dogs are held in place, and you can see that most of them are scared to death. In addition to being prevented from escaping, 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 them 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. The first, in the cases of #1 and #3 above, is that some of them 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 very 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 (demonstrated most clearly in #7 and #8 above), the humans may realize that the experience is unpleasant for the dog, but they just figure the dog needs to get over it. 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.)

Other Resources on Flooding

Photo Credits

Link to dog under table photo | License to photo

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015


1. Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895).
2. Domjan, Michael, The Principles of Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA, 2014): 280-81.
3. Schiff, Robert, Nelson Smith, and James Prochaska, “Extinction of avoidance in rats as a function of duration and number of blocked trials,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology (81: 2, 1972): 356.
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