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"Get Used To It": Forcing Dogs to Face Their Fears

A common belief is that fearful dogs need to "get used to" the things that they fear. This often involves immersing the dog in an environment where they cannot escape whatever triggers their fear. In psychology, this is called "flooding." But before we consider using it with dogs, we must first look at what is considered ethical treatment in humans. First, the therapist doesn't just lock them in a room full of snakes. The patient can CHOOSE this type of therapy, with full disclosure of what will be involved, including the risks. They are made aware that their anxiety will increase considerably during treatment, but that they must "confront their fear until it dies." Second, the therapist and patient establish a hierarchy of fears, so that they can work from least frightening to most frightening. Third, the therapist teaches the patient relaxation and coping skills, so that they have clear instructions on what they can do during the period of exposure. Finally, sufficient time is provided for the session, since leaving the session before anxiety has begun to subside risks exacerbating the problem. This often means enduring several hours of extreme fear. (These steps found in The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology: A Contextual Approach, by Alan Carr) Now, let's look at dogs. Do they get to choose their therapy? No. That, alone, should be enough to consider this unethical and inhumane when treating fears and phobias in dogs and other animals. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual: "[Flooding] is far more stressful than any of the other treatment strategies and if not used correctly will make things worse. The most common problem is increased fear. This technique should be used only by a professional and only as a last resort." Unfortunately, the approach was popularized on reality television, taking dogs that were fearful and forcing them into situations they feared. For flooding to be successful, the fear and anxiety must SUBSIDE during exposure. The dogs on television never showed indications of decreased fear. They were stiff, immobile, and generally not responsive. Not signs of “calm” behavior, as was claimed. One side effect of this approach is that the dog starts to associate objects or even their owners with these experiences. In one case I worked with, the dog had a fear of the husband. The family reached out to the dog’s foster home and asked for advice. They were told “not to baby him,” and have other family members hold him down while the husband pet him. Not only did he urinate on everyone, but he then started to avoid ALL Family members whenever the husband was in the room. The desire to help a dog overcome their fears, especially those that seem to prevent them from enjoying “normal” dog activities like neighborhood walks, trips to the dog park, or agility classes is understandable. But force is never fun. Developing a plan that *gradually* exposes the dog at levels that do not trigger a stress response, while incorporating counter-conditioning strategies may seem like it takes longer. But it is far safer and more humane. Never force a dog to face their fears...unless you are prepared for the risk that it will make things worse. BUTS "But what DO I do?" There are too many variables for me to give specific advice on a FB post. However, the webinar linked below will cover a variety of strategies and supportive therapies that you can use to create a plan for your dog. "But it worked for my dog." Flooding CAN work, especially for low-level phobias. However, so does desensitization and counter-conditioning. For the reasons listed above, it is not considered a low-risk approach...and that's in humans who have CHOSEN that therapy. In one case (Wolpe 1969), a woman was hospitalized because the experience was so traumatic. With dogs, we can't sit down and have a talk about their fear to help them prepare for or overcome these experiences. While it may have worked for your dog, it should still not be considered the go-to treatment for fears and phobias.


Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.

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