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What is flooding in dog training and behavior modification?

In the world of dogs, there are a variety of terms that may seem to be quite technical, but technical doesn't necessarily have to mean difficult to understand.

 Don't be discouraged by intimidating terms and don't let them get into the way of learning more about your canine companion!

 The concept behind several terms is often straightforward and quite easy to comprehend once explained in simple words.

 Flooding is one term that is often used by dog behavior professionals, but it is a term that is very easy to understand once explained in layman's terms. 

On top of that, learning more about flooding in dog psychology can help you better manage your dog's environment so to avoid exposing him to overwhelming situations.

Flooding in Dog Psychology

The term flooding is often used by dog behavior professionals, but this term actually stems from a form of behavior therapy that has been used in human for quite some time.

To be exact this psycho-therapeutic technique was based on concepts crafted by psychologist Thomas Stampfl back in 1967. 

Flooding has therefore been used as a strategy for treating anxiety disorders and phobias for quite some time and it is still used in behavior therapy today.

Phobias are unreasonable fears to non-threatening stimuli and situations that cause a disproportionate sense of mortal danger that gets in the way of everyday life.

As much as flooding has been used for many years and may appear as a fast way to rid people of fear, therapists have been questioning whether its use is ethical considering that its application can be traumatic and there are risks for the fear to spontaneously recur.

In the world of dogs, flooding has been used as well using similar behavior therapy principles, but as in flooding in people, its effectiveness and potential for increasing fear makes it as well a questionable option.

For this reason, flooding as a treatment plan for a fearful dogs is technique that is not recommended by many dog behavior professionals. Becoming more accustomed with the term flooding can be helpful so that you can learn how to avoid inadvertently putting your dog into a "flooding situation" and learn about alternate options to deal with your dog's fears.

Flooding in dogs entails high-intensity exposures that trigger stress and defensive reactions

Flooding in dogs entails high-intensity exposures that trigger stress and defensive reactions

A Closer Insight

If you are terrified of spiders, would you be willing to be locked in a room full of them? 

If your biggest phobia is talking in front of a crowd, how would you feel if you were forced to do a speech in front of an audience consisting of hundreds of people? 

And how about being tossed in a pool when you are afraid of water? Well, that's somewhat what happens in flooding in the way it is applied to dogs.

In flooding, dogs are forced to face their biggest fears by direct, in-vivo exposure.

While avoiding fearful situations may make a person or dog feel safe and therefore feels reinforcing to do so, it ultimately impairs certain forms of learning and shouldn't be the preferred go-to method. 

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Advocates though believe that, by using flooding, there may be chances that direct exposure might accomplish at least something, making it worthy of trying.

The main principle behind flooding is that after feeling the panic for a while, with its associated fight or flight response, the body at some point must start going back to a state of normalcy (homeostasis).

Once the body reaches this state of reduced fear or normalcy, the person may come to realize that the stimulus or situation is not as threatening as thought. 

So in the case of being locked in a room of spiders, after feeling the sheer terror of the experience, the person at some point may come to realize that he is still alive and that being around those eight-legged critters is not as bad as thought after all.

The Problem with Flooding Dogs

While the principle behind flooding may make sense, its effects as one may imagine can be quite damaging and devastating. This method basically requires that the dog be mentally and physically exhausted.

First of all, dogs are not humans and therefore they do not understand that the therapy is meant to help them and, on top of that, they cannot "self-talk" to reassure themselves during the process as people are capable of doing.

During flooding, dogs may engage in strong avoidance behaviors trying to escape, and if prevented from doing so, they may get hurt or even engage in defensive behaviors which can endanger people around them.

On top of that, flooding causes loads of unnecessary stress. When using flooding, the outcomes can be two: in the best scenario, after repeated exposure, the dog may come to realize "somehow" that what he feared wasn't that bad, or in the worst scenario, he may become traumatized with all its associated negative effects.

"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

An Alternative Method

Use food to create powerful associations!

Use food to create powerful associations.

Even Thomas Stampfl realized at some point that direct exposure was too traumatic to experience, and also not always an option, therefore he created what's known as imagery exposure procedure, where his patients were exposed to their fears using an imagery technique. Dogs though cannot work through their fears in this way, so what options are left?

A much better option with less risks is a behavior modification program known as desensitization (often used along counterconditioning)

Desensitization is basically the opposite of flooding. Instead of fully exposing the dog to the most scary situation, the dog is gradually exposed to the least fearful situation first.

Such exposure to a heavily-diluted trigger therefore helps the dog versus direct exposure to high-intensity, anxiety-producing stimuli, with no effort to dull the experience.

A dog owner would therefore compile a list of the dog's triggers from the least fearful to the worst (fear hierarchy) and the dog would therefore be gradually and systematically exposed (with the help of a behavior professional) through steadily escalating steps.

Along with desensitization, counterconditioning should be added. Counterconditioning involves creating positive associations with the trigger in hopes that the dog goes from dreading it to looking forward to it. 

The help of a professional in this case is important for correct implementation of behavior modification. 

One of the most common mistakes done in a desensitization and counterconditioning program is progressing too quickly at a rate that the dog is yet not ready for. This only paves the path towards setbacks. As the saying goes "slow and steady wins the race" and therefore it's best to go one step at a time.


  • Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, By Karen Overall Mosby; 1 Pap/DVD edition (July 9, 2013)
  • Leitenberg, Harold (1990). Handbook of Social and Evaluation Anxiety. Springer. pp. 300–2. ISBN 978-0-306-43438-9.
  • Implosive Therapy Donald J. Levis Binghamton University, New York, retrieved from the web on Nov 16th, 2016.

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