Flooding: when desensitisation with your dog goes wrong
Helping our dog get used to things in the world is a vital skill for the modern dog owner. Our world is filled with things that probably make little sense to the average dog. Living in a world of noisy and unpredictable machines isn’t easy.
There are two things we often do to help our dogs. The first is pre-emptive. We try to habituate them to things that we know are not pleasant for dogs. Things like crates, muzzles and leads take a little getting used to. This is not to say they are not useful in our lives. Far from it! Travel crates, leads and muzzles may well be a legal obligation for you, depending on your dog. Even the most lightweight harnesses can be tough for our dogs.
But we know they are restrictive, and so helping our dogs get used to them avoids many of the common pitfalls associated with them.
We can also help them by going slowly. The more we rush, the worse it gets.
Other things also benefit from a gentle introduction. Being handled by vets and groomers is one example. Going slow makes all the difference.
However, we can also use desensitisation when our dog is panicking about things that really aren’t all that bad.
If our dog has become very fearful or nervous of things that they could reasonably be expected to tolerate, we may be thinking about desensitisation. For instance, it’s reasonable for a dog to tolerate a short separation from the family group if we’ve helped build up to it gradually.
Sadly, not everybody is on board with that yet. Where we expect very young dogs to tolerate extreme absences, we really shouldn’t be trying to help them feel better about that. It’s not reasonable for a young dog to tolerate hours and hours of absence. The same is also true of sleeping arrangements. Dogs are family animals, and if our young puppy has just left their litter, the last thing they need is to be abandoned in a kitchen or conservatory overnight.
Our first question is whether it’s reasonable for the dog to tolerate mildly unpleasant things.
For example, it’s reasonable for dogs to tolerate having their nails filed or clipped. It’s reasonable for them to have their paws held for a short time and with low pressure while we do that.
If we introduce them to it gradually and thoughtfully, it would be surprising if they didn’t learn to tolerate it.
What wouldn’t be normal – as long as we’d not caused any harm in the past – is if the dog has a complete panic about having their nails clipped.
So desensitisation is useful in lots of situations. It can be used preventatively for things dogs could reasonably be expected to struggle with, and it can be used as a treatment method as well.
Desensitisation as a treatment method
Done properly, desensitisation is a great tool for our lives with our dogs. Just as one example, it can help them get used to the car so that instead of panicking or feeling sick, they relax and enjoy the journey.
One problem can be when the dog is unable to move away. Where they can’t move away and any attempt they make to do so is thwarted, we run the risk of flooding them.
Flooding simply means inescapable exposure to the unpleasant stuff in life. It doesn’t have to be at high intensity. It doesn’t have to be enough to cause panic. For it to flood the dog, it simply has to be inescapable. When there is a lot of uncertainty, it is incredibly unlikely that our dogs will ever ‘get used to’ things.
One example with fears over the car would be that we think we are going slowly and gradually. We take a few days to lift the dog into the car and sit on the drive with the engine off. We then practise clipping them into the seat or putting them into a travel crate. Then we take a few more days to build up to turning the engine on.
Our dog doesn’t panic and things seem fine.
How do we know if we’re flooding them, then?
Because dogs cannot tell us that they feel uncomfortable, we often miss the signs of mild anxiety. Even mild anxiety makes it unlike that our dog will relax enough to truly get used to the situation.
Even in that very simple scenario above, there are plenty of things that made it more or less inescapable.
The first would be that the dog has to be lifted into the car.
We often do that because it’s practical and our dog is small. But that physical act is the first step in removing the dog’s choice in the matter.
The second thing would be in closing the door. Now it’s truly inescapable, unless a window is open.
And the third thing would be in clipping them in or crating them.
Not that we’d attempt to do any of this without those things! Nobody’s suggesting you drive off down the road with the dog able to get out of a moving vehicle.
But each of those factors removes yet another layer of choice and makes the situation less and less avoidable.
Our bond with our dogs
Dogs are amazing. They are so amazing that they let us dress them up in Hallowe’en costumes and stick them on the back of our bicycles. They tolerate being handled by strangers in a vet surgery or groomed, and many, many dogs simply put up with it. You can’t imagine doing that with a medium size wolf, I’m sure.
Many dogs often inhibit their behaviour around humans. It’s part of the deal in living with us. They can’t fight us for a sandwich. They can’t decide that they’re not letting us into bed because they got there first. As in the vet example above, if you want to understand just how much our dogs inhibit of natural animal behaviour, all you have to do is ask yourself what a wild wolf would do in those circumstances.
We forget that many of our dogs simply do things because we ask them to. Or, worse, we tell them to.
Even if they feel uncomfortable with that.
I’ve certainly worked with dogs who showed a lot of discomfort in situations that made them anxious, and they tolerated it because that’s what dogs do.
But times are changing – for the better. In the past, people used to beat dogs for behaving like a dog. Dogs who showed any sign of disagreement were often put to sleep or chained up outside.
The perils of our bond
Because of our bond with our dogs, they often passively accept what we ask them to do, even if it is uncomfortable for them. Only a couple of decades ago, we used to recommend puppy parties, where puppies would be passed around like a parcel ostensibly to help them get used to being handled by strangers.
Whenever our dog cannot move away, then the situation just became inescapable.
There are other situations, however, where our dogs oblige us simply because our relationship is strong. They get into cars when they’d rather not. They tolerate us lifting them onto the grooming table even though they are scared.
Whenever we use doors, gates, leads, crates or our relationship with our dog to reduce the chance that they would simply move away, we run the risk of flooding our dog.
Avoiding the pitfalls of accidental flooding
There are several things we can do to avoid accidentally flooding our dog.
The first is to observe them and any hesitation they have to approach. Although Bertie may well tolerate his harness, if he’s giving you the run-around for a couple of minutes before you manage to wrestle him into it, then it’s a safe guess that he’s not very comfortable.
This is easy when we know how. Just this morning, it was raining. I got out my dog Lidy’s raincoat and held the head bit open. I stood still and she approached immediately. She didn’t just approach immediately, she put her head through the hole immediately. First time, no fuss.
This helps us know that our dog is happy to do whatever we’re asking. Later, we went to the supermarket. I held the car door open for her to hop in, and she hesitated. She did that last week too. In fact, normally, I open the back door, then open the front door; I put my bag on the passenger seat, close the front passenger side and return to clip her in. Last week, she hesitated getting into the back seat, then tried to get in the front seat. Just those two little changes tell me she’s not as comfortable as she normally would be.
I don’t know why. It could be pain in hopping up. Another reason could be she landed on the seatbelt clip and hurt herself. It was also quite dark and wet. When we observe our dog’s behaviour, it helps us notice where they hesitate so we can investigate further.
Taking it easy
Whenever our dog will be restrained for the exposure process, then we need to go slowly. Whether that’s being okay in the car, on the groomer’s table or in the vet’s, it doesn’t matter. We could be down the park doing work with them around other dogs and skateboarders. It doesn’t matter. Hasty exposures where the dog cannot get away increase the risk of flooding exponentially.
When we do this, it also damages the dog’s trust in us, especially if they are simply doing it because we asked them to. We’re not particularly reliable guardians if we keep putting them into uncertain and unpredictable situations that make them feel uncomfortable or anxious. There have been times when I’ve asked my dogs to do things or cued certain behaviours, and having their trust has been paramount.
This is especially true in novel situations.
We want our dogs to be able to trust that no harm will come to them when we ask them to do things.
We’re hardly trustworthy if we encourage them to do scary stuff that makes them feel uncomfortable on a regular basis.
I want my dogs, when I say, ‘are you ready?!’ to trust implicitly that they’ll be safe. That implicit trust cannot happen if we keep putting them into situations where they cannot cope but they do it anyway.
If we go slow and break things down, we can often find that our dogs consent to things that aren’t always very pleasant. Teaching them that they have a choice is a vital part of that.
For instance, having a harness put over your head and squishing your ears isn’t very comfortable. Think of all the children who struggle when their parents try to help them dress in tight or restrictive clothing for example.
Many people get into the habit of cornering their dog in order to put the dog’s harness on, or moving in on the dog. This takes a lot of choice out of the situation as well.
Yet ironically, when we teach our dogs to step up and step into the harness, they do. I know many dogs who, when given a choice, still choose to do things that must be very painful.
When my dog Tilly first came to me, she had horrendous ear problems. It took months to get them under control and she was in a lot of pain. They cleared up and we spent a good six or seven years before they started to trouble her again in old age. In between, I’d taught her to step up for ear drops. I’d show the bottle and she would come to me. In fact, I also taught her to tip her head to the side so the drops would go in. She also had to stay there while I massaged them in.
In later life, it must have been incredibly painful. She often yelped or cried when I did it, even though I was very gentle. Yet she never failed to approach when it was time. She could easily have refused.
Consent makes all the difference. Every day, Lidy has to do many things where her consent is part of the situation. That involves stepping into the harness or her raincoat. It involves stepping up for her muzzle to be clipped on. It involves jumping into the car.
There are other things too, like approaching for her nails to be clipped or filed. When she first arrived with me, she hated to be brushed. It took time, but I taught her to approach to be brushed. It was the same with being towel-dried. Now she enjoys both very much and will push me to do them more.
Choice is often not very important until there is no choice. And when there is no choice, this is when things start to get complicated for our dogs. It’s also a prime factor in why our attempts to help them get used to things then tips over into flooding.
Desensitisation can be a powerful tool alongside other techniques.
Of course, having a good skillset and being able to disengage is also important. You can find the 42 Lighten Up Skills for Resilience on this short course.
This article is part of a series on desensitisation.