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What is Controlled Flooding?

There are many different training approaches that can be used to help a dog overcome fears and phobias. One of the most effective methods out there is also one of the most controversial, and many people believe it to be borderline animal abuse.

This is the method of controlled flooding in order to get a dog over a fear or phobia. Controlled flooding  is the act of placing the dog in and near the stimuli that they are fearful of for an extended period of time until the dog gets desensitized to that fearful stimuli.

Although controlled flooding sounds simple it is not always the case, controlled flooding is far more complex than simply placing the dog in an environment that they are afraid of.

Controlled flooding is very controversial to many people and trainers as they believe that it is the equivalent of locking someone who is afraid of spiders in a room full of them and waiting for them to calm down. This is an example of controlled flooding done wrong and a dog trainer who uses controlled flooding in this way will not yield any long-term results from it.

“When people are opposed to controlled flooding as a dog training technique, they typically are referring to the first example which is a really bad way to expose a dog to something they are afraid of. “

There is however a proper way to utilize controlled flooding in a training environment in order to get a dog to overcome a fear that they may have. Before we get into controlled flooding with dog training let me share a personal story of my own controlled flooding experience as a child.

When I was younger, around five years old, my family took a vacation to Disneyland. While at Disneyland there was one attraction where you could swim in a tank full of hammerhead and tiger sharks. I was fascinated with sharks at the time, but I was also deathly afraid of going into the water with them.

I remember getting into the water with my mother by my side and we swam with the sharks, I was nervous and afraid the entire time but my mother was right next to me the entire way and she didn’t show any signs of fear.

This encouraged me to stay calm while swimming with the sharks. By the end of the experience my fear had dissipated, and I wanted to go back and swim with the sharks again. I ended up going another two times that day.

This example that I have provided you is a proper way to conduct controlled flooding with a dog. Whereas the example of locking a person who is afraid of spiders in a room full of them would be the equivalent of someone dropping my five-year-old self into shark infested waters all by myself.

It just will not work; in fact, it would likely give the person PTSD from the experience. When people are opposed to controlled flooding as a dog training technique, they typically are referring to the first example which is a really bad way to expose a dog to something they are afraid of.

So, let us look at some differences between the proper way to flood a dog and the improper way to do it. The proper way has a controlled environment, there is guidance from a trusted person who is standing strong and acting as an anchor, there is no bad experience taking place to validate the already present fears that the dog has.

“You see, one of the biggest factors when flooding a dog is being a good leader.”

A bad example of controlled flooding would be an uncontrolled environment, no solid leader to guide the dog through the stressful environment, and bad experiences happening that validate the fear. Are you starting to see the differences between an effective form of controlled flooding and a poor form of controlled flooding?

Let us look at an example of a dog who is fearful of other dogs and see the difference between the flooding done properly and flooding done improperly.

An owner has a dog who is fearful of other dogs, the owner decides to take their dog to a dog park in order to flood the dog with the thing that it is afraid of.

The owner lets the dog in the dog park and it immediately gets surrounded by other dogs and becomes extremely fearful and lashes out, thus starting a mini dog fight. As the dog fight ensues the owner rushes over and tries to comfort the dog and encourage the dog to go play with the other dogs, the voice of the owner shakes with concern and fear which the dog picks up on.

In this example the owner did not have control over the environment or the other dogs, an altercation broke out that only validates the dogs already present fear, and they owner was not a reliable leader as the voice that they presented to the dog sent the message that they themselves were fearful.

In this second example the owner decides to take their dog to meet a friend’s dog on private property with only the two dogs, both dogs are on a leash. The owner of the fearful dog takes their dog and walks past the other dog repeatedly, the handlers both behave normal and reward the dog with treats and act strong and confident for the dog.

In this second example the environment is controlled, there is no chance of the dogs getting into an altercation, counter conditioning is being used in conjunction with thresholds, and most importantly the owner is being a leader for the dog.

“As owners it is our responsibility to be strong for our dogs.”

You see, one of the biggest factors when flooding a dog is being a good leader. Had my mother been freaking out in the water with the sharks I most certainly would be freaking out as well.

Dogs are the same way as young children, they look up to their owners for security and safety, and if they sense that the owner is worried then they will begin to worry as well. As owners it is our responsibility to be strong for our dogs.

It can be very tempting to want to comfort your furry friend when they are afraid, but often this sends them the message that something is wrong, and their already present fears will become validated.

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