Flooding Therapy for Dog Behavior Issues

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

What Is Flooding in Dogs?

Flooding, clinically known as prolonged exposure therapy, is a full immersion training technique applied both in humans and animal psychology. It consists of forcefully exposing the dog to the stimuli that triggers its fear and caused the original trauma. This method of behavior therapy may bring fast results, but it may be traumatic and may come with some risks.

In a recent episode, Cesar Millan treated Kane, a Great Dane who was terrified of walking on shiny surfaces after slipping on a shiny floor and hitting himself on a glass door. The pet parents were desperate to ease this dog's fears but could not find a way to make him gain confidence again.

Cesar pointed out that nurturing the dog when it displayed fear was only making matters worse. Instead, he takes Kane by the leash and walks him with confidence over the shiny floor. Kane, appears disoriented, but in a few minutes, he is back to walking normally on the shiny surface. This is an example of flooding used with success (if the dog healed completely), but watch the dog's many stress signals. Was it really worth it?

In the human world, flooding is used to treat fears and phobias. A good example is when psychologists bombard their patients with detailed descriptions of the situations they fear until they end up losing their fear of those situations.

Flooding in Dogs: A Risky Procedure

In flooding, the dog cannot escape from the situation until it is released. This makes it a highly stressful situation. However, the belief is that eventually, the dog's arousal level will diminish and the dog's reactive state may shut down.

While this may look like success (in reality it's just the dog being exhausted or getting into a state of learned helplessness), it is only by looking at the long term results that this can be determined.

Quick fixes might work in fixing a sink, but are not common in solving dog behavior. And flooding techniques will not always be successful long term, many dogs end up being sensitized and traumatized.

When is Flooding Used in Dogs?

Hunting dogs fearful of gunshots may be placed close to a firing range. Farm dogs fearful of horses may be placed in a horse stable for hours. Dogs fearful of thunder may be exposed to prolonged recordings of thunderstorm put at high volume.

While flooding may help in some mild cases, when it does not, the dog may turn into an emotional wreck and be prone to sensitization, which causes an increase in fear. There are, therefore, far better approaches granting higher rates of success.

Imagine feeling afraid of spiders and being forced into a bathtub crawling with them in order to get over it. Eventually your fight-or-flight response will run out of fuel, and you’ll perhaps deal. But the fact that something can work is not in itself a reason to do it. You can drill people’s teeth without an anesthetic, but why would you? There are other techniques that reach the same endpoint without trauma.

— ~Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Don't Sensitize, Desensitize!

Flooding often leads to behavior problems getting worse not better. So what are other options to try to help a dog overcome his biggest fears?


Desensitization, for instance, may take longer but it provides far more reliable results. Instead of forcefully exposing the dog for prolonged periods of time to the stimuli causing the dog's unnecessary fear, the dog is gradually exposed to its fear, and therefore there are higher chances of putting the dog up for success. Gradual exposure may encompass exposing to triggers from a distance or recordings of noises played at a low volume.


Counterconditioning, applied along with desensitization, further increases the chances for success, considering that positive associations with triggers are created so to change the dog's emotional response.

Patience and gradual exposure focused on creating positive associations is, therefore, a much preferable method.

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

© 2010 Adrienne Farricelli

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 26, 2014:

Thank you MarieLB, I am happy to hear you enjoyed the read! Best regards, Adrienne

MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on October 26, 2014:

Thank you so much for sharing your deep knowledge of dogs with us, who also love dogs very much. It is a great article and in time I shall be reading other articles and learning from you.

Eileen Hughes from Northam Western Australia on November 02, 2010:

Great article, so many dogs suffer from anxiety these days but it is hard to find a cure. Our blue heeler was okay until he had a tooth removed. Now when in car he trembles non stop.

And when we stop he goes and does his business and races back to get in the car dragging me with him. He has enormous strength even pulls my husband over and he's not little. Our vet put him on 50mg of Endep and still does not slow him down. We try to be patient with him. thanks for sharing this idea with us great hub

India Arnold from Northern, California on November 01, 2010:

alexadry~ I personally do not favor the flooding technique. It seems better suited for a prisoner of war camp than for a healing session for your dog. You make a wonderful option availabe to your readers when advising;

"Desensitation for instance, may take longer but it provides far more reliable results. Instead of forcefully exposing the dog for prolonged periods of time to the stimuli causing the dog's fear, the dog is gradually exposed to its fear and therefore there are higher chances of putting the dog up for success."

My personal feeling is this technique provides for a better relationship with the dog and his alpha human in the long run with less chance of a 'snap' back to the fearful place due to PTSD that may be lingering behind the behavior modification.

Outstanding work and advice here, I offer my respect to you for a well done and dog friendly hub! UP and awesome.


2. Electonic shock collars

Electonic shock collars, are also known as a “training collar”, “e-collar”, “e-touch”, “stimulation”, “stim”, “tap”, or even “clicker” (which should not be confused with an actual clicker which is simple a small mechanical box that simply makes a clicking sound).

These collars are highly controversial, with some swearing by them for the right situation and others abhorring them. The science literature however, indicates many problems with using them which included the potential to creating a more defensive and dangerous animal to presenting a risk to the well-being of dogs. (4) (5) (6) (7)

“Such tools ‘work’ by engendering fear, pain, and distrust, and in doing so they cause long-term damage that make dogs more reactive, less trusting, and less able to reach their full potential in their partnership with humans, no matter what form that partnership takes.” (2) – Dr Karen Overall MA, VMD, PhD, Diplomate ACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

Anecdotal evidence of some veterinary behaviorists indicate that many of the aggressive dogs trained with them are eventually destroyed. Shock collars are already banned outright in Wales, Denmark, Germany and in the province of Quebec in Canada. has banned them from their product listings.

Fears and Phobias

Fear is a normal response to an actual or perceived threatening stimulus or situation. Anxiety is a response to fear and agitation, or apprehension when the animal anticipates a threat or fearful situation. Phobia is an exaggerated fear response (see Phobia). The fear response may include panting and salivation, tucked tail, lowered ears, gazing away, low body posture, piloerection, vocalization, or displacement behaviors such as yawning or lip licking. While avoidance and escape is one strategy, some dogs use aggression to remove the fear-evoking stimulus and are reinforced by success (negative reinforcement).

Some of the more common presentations include the following: 1) fear of other dogs, especially those that are unfamiliar, appear threatening to the dog, or with which the dog has had an unpleasant experience 2) fear of unfamiliar people, especially those who are novel or look, act, or smell different than those the dog is accustomed to (eg, young children) 3) fear of inanimate stimuli such as loud or unfamiliar noises (eg, construction work, trucks, gunshot), visual stimuli (eg, umbrellas, hats, uniforms), environments (eg, backyard, park, boarding kennel), surfaces (eg, grass, tile or wood floors, steps), or a combination of stimuli (eg, vacuum cleaners, car rides) and 4) fear of specific situations such as veterinary clinics or grooming parlors. Some dogs have a more generalized anxiety, in which the fearful reaction is displayed in a wide range of situations to which a “normal” pet would be unlikely to react. Although there can be a genetic component to fear and anxiety, prenatal and neonatal stressors, including maternal separation, lack of socialization (ie, unfamiliarity), or a previous unpleasant outcome during encounters with the stimulus (or similar stimuli), can also be causative factors.

Phobic responses in dogs are generally associated with loud noises (eg, thunder, fireworks, gunshots) and the stimuli associated with these events, including rain, lightning, and perhaps even static or pressure changes associated with a thunderstorm. Some fears (eg, veterinary clinics, going outdoors, entering certain rooms, or walking on certain types of flooring) may become so intense that they meet the definition of a phobia.

Separation Anxiety:

14% of dogs have separation anxiety, or an inability of the pet to find comfort when separated from family members. The problem may be primary (eg, hyperattachment, dysfunctional attachment) as the puppy ages and matures in fact, the chances of the problem developing can be reduced by having puppies regularly spend time during the day on their own (preferably in a safe haven). In other cases, the anxiety about being left alone is secondary to an event such as a change in the household or dog's daily routine, or associated with an underlying state of anxiety along with other behavioral issues such as noise phobias and separation anxiety. Anxiety may lead to destructive behavior (particularly at exits or toward owner possessions), distress vocalization, housesoiling, salivation, pacing, restlessness, inability to settle, anorexia, and repetitive or compulsive behaviors. The behaviors are exhibited when the dog is left alone and generally arise within the first 15–30 min after departure. A video recording can be an invaluable diagnostic aid to visualize the behavior and determine whether there are other concurrent signs of anxiety (autonomic stimulation, increased motor activity, and increased vigilance and scanning). The diagnosis requires that other common causes of the signs be excluded (eg, incomplete housetraining, exploratory play and scavenging, external stimuli leading to arousal and anxiety, noise aversion, or confinement anxiety). Many pets with separation anxiety begin to exhibit signs as the owner prepares to depart (eg, putting on shoes, getting keys, going to the door). When the owner is home, the dog may crave constant contact or proximity to the owner. When the owner returns, the welcoming responses are commonly exaggerated and the dog is hard to calm down.

Dog Behavior Help

Basic Commands

Working with your dog to obey commands can help your dog become a model canine citizen. A dog that understands what is expected of him is happier and has a more enjoyable relationship with his people. Here are some basic commands ways to teach your dog what you expect.

Crate and Leash Training

It is important to ensure your pet’s safety at all times. Outside of your home, there are local laws that require that pets to be appropriately restrained. It is also important for your pet (and sometimes for your belongings) that he be contained within your house and your property. Here are some ideas on how to keep your pet safe.


Puppyhood is a fun but challenging time. It is important that you introduce your puppy to different people and animals and teach them what behavior is appropriate. Here are some tips to help your pup grow into a model canine citizen!

What Your Dog Is Telling You

Dogs cannot speak English but they still communicate with us everyday! Check out these two great posters and find out what your dog is saying!

House Training

One of the most frustrating things for a human is to wake up and step in a yellow puddle (or worse). Here are some tips to help you teach your companion where to go!


Dogs need exercise and stimulation to help them be both physically and mentally healthy. Here are some ideas for safe and fun exercise for your dog.

Common Issues

Most dog owners share similar problems with their pets, especially when they are new to a home. Here are some ideas of how to work on common behavior issues.


The general belief is that if a dog growls and barks, he is angry. While this can be true, it’s often a sign of some other behavior. Here are some guidelines to look at in determining why your dog is acting in an aggressive way.

Multiple Animal Households

Having multiple pets is a lot of fun and a great way for your animals to socialize. However, it can be exhausting and difficult as well. There are different issues and needs that dogs have when they are around other pets. Here are some ideas on how to introduce your pet to new friends in a safe way.

Tips for New or Expectant Parents

If you have questions about introducing your pet to your new baby, register for the next session of Baby Ready Pets through Animal Friends University.

Related Reading

Open arms communities worldwide with valuable user- and animal-friendly training and behavior information with the goal of keeping cats and dogs out of shelters in the first place.

Check out the San Francisco SPCA for a list of great resources, including information on grooming to safety.

Visit Denver’s Dumb Friends League’s page for dog behavior tips. Hint: Use the menu on the left side of the page to navigate the articles.

The Center for Shelter Dogs also has more information on managing problem behaviors.

Watch the video: The Use of Flooding to Treat Phobias (September 2021).