I’ve talked about observational learning before here. I haven’t discussed flooding before, mainly because I don’t utilize it heavily.
Flooding is the concept of exposing a dog to so many of their triggers at once that they don’t know what to focus on. This often means a reactive dog doesn’t know what to lash out at. Or fearful dog doesn’t know what way to jump. Flooding is a technique that has been proven to be effective. It is often used in phobia recovery in humans. However, it isn’t leaned upon heavily by most dog trainers because while it can be effective, it is also extremely stressful for the dog. Where I mostly see flooding used is to help aide an aggressive dog’s recovery.
But, while many trainers don’t use flooding regularly, sometimes it is easy to overlook that flooding is something that can happen throughout the natural course of our dogs’ lives. I once had a client who had a dog that was very nervous of people. As he got older, into his secondary fear period, he got quite reactive and would routinely bark at anyone he encountered on the streets. One day in class, his owners came in and told me in shock that they had stumbled upon a festival and in order to get back to their car they had to walk through it with their dog and he hadn’t made a peep. Unbeknownst to them, they had put their dog in a situation that flooded them.
A good trainer is going to tell you not to put your dog in situations where they are going to fail – to set your dog up for success. And that’s important. They won’t just throw a dog into a situation and let them figure it out. They will introduce the scenario through counter conditioning and careful desensitization. And all of those things are so incredibly important. But in my increasing experience, putting an insecure in a situation where they don’t shut down but there is a lot to process and then allowing other dogs to demonstrate how to behave in that situation can guide the insecure dog to more confident choices very quickly.
Aside from the distress of the dog, which is a huge problem with unmitigated flooding, utilizing flooding also sometimes means that the dog doesn’t know which way to jump. They’ll often just freeze and it can take them a long time to break out of that shock and distress because they just don’t have any examples to follow.
One practice I am very fond of utilizing with insecure dogs is pack hikes. My dogs have really fantastic hiking manners. He hike regularly, both on and off leash. They will automatically slow down and check-in on blind corners. They don’t really play and while they’ll run ahead or behind they always keep me in their sights. Since I started working with board and train dogs last year, I have found this one of the most successful ways to introduce new dogs to all sorts of terrain and new experiences, which builds their confidence. And, with very few exceptions, most dogs will start off on a standard six foot leash. They’ll sniff and I’ll keep my own dogs close. As we continue on into the wilderness, I’ll let my dogs roam more and switch the new dog to a long line. Almost invariably, I don’t even need to keep the long line short, the boarding dogs stick close to me, a known quantity while watching my own dogs. As time goes by they’ll start to follow my dogs out further while I hold onto the long line, but again they check in when my dogs check in and often recall back to me on their own without me needing to call. It very cool to see the nervous dogs begin to open up and follow my dogs’ examples.
Now, there are all sorts of dogs where this technique wouldn’t work. I worked with an incredibly anxious herding dog awhile back and a pack hike was simply too stimulating for him. So instead I would take him out for walks through the neighborhood with Anubi who ignored the other dog’s nerves and eventually the other dog would settle. But for nervous dogs, for dogs that just don’t know which way to jump and just need a better framework to live within, seeing other dogs behaving in a confident, predictable fashion, even when they’re feeling overwhelmed, is one of the most useful processes I’ve encountered.