Getting Used To It: Helping Fearful Dogs

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Getting Used To It: Helping Fearful Dogs

October 31, 2023 Uncategorised 0

The gold standard treatment for helping dogs who are fearful of things is gradual exposure. This is something most of us recognise for ourselves. Whether we’re trying to help our dogs get used to noises that cause a fear response, or to people who scare them, we understand that we are trying to help them overcome their fears by getting used to things.

Professional behaviour consultants and dog trainers use gradual exposure as a method of helping dogs overcome their fears. Using a carefully constructed stimulus gradient from ‘least scary’ to ‘most scary’, we gradually build up a dog’s ability to cope with things that have made them feel anxious or caused a fear response in the past.

Depending on what we are doing, this can involve a process many trainers call desensitisation. Sometimes you may hear them refer to it as systematic desensitisation. It can be worth clarifying what they mean by these terms. Mostly, this means short, gradual exposures at a level the dog is relatively comfortable with.

Because it is difficult to know whether the dog is genuinely comfortable, we try to work with as little fear as possible. Of course, the dog has to have noticed whatever it is that triggers their fear, so we can’t work with things the dog can’t sense. They have to be able to sense things to process them.

Working with low arousal

Working with high arousal will not work. This does not work because an aroused dog is most likely to sensitise to triggers even more. Say for instance the dog is afraid of loud noises, then if they are highly aroused when they hear them, they will simply become more and more sensitive to those noises over time.

Thankfully this is a temporary process. With my own dog who does not like loud noises, she sensitises more easily because she has sensitised before. If loud noises made us feel afraid in the past, it’s more easy for us to remember and re-experience that fear again in the future.

As the UK’s ridiculously long firework season goes from mid-October to New Years’ Eve, what generally happens over this long season is that she sensitises easily and stays sensitised. Thankfully, the break from January to mid-October allows her to habituate once again.

She also generalises more easily. Last night, we were awoken by very loud bangers around two miles away. Today, a low-flying and noisy plane also caused her to tremble where normally she does not seem to notice or respond to planes. A man dragging a bin also startled her. It is easy for us to become more sensitive to other things.

For this reason, we need to work at low arousal with the very least amount of a stimulus that the dog will notice it but they will respond with minimal fear.

Finding that sweet spot can be hard.

Outside the sweet spot

When we work with too much of a stimulus like loud noises or scary humans, then not only will our dog sensitise more easily, we run the risk of flooding them.

Flooding is the deliberate exposure of a dog to inescapable bad stuff at a strength that causes the full emotional response. Unfortunately, some inexpert and inhumane dog trainers and behaviour consultants use flooding as a therapeutic process.

To do this, they must make a deliberate choice to do so. Sometimes, we do so with the best of intentions, knowing that fireworks are just fireworks. They won’t kill our dog. Scary people are just people. They won’t kill our dog either.

Sometimes we inadvertently flood our dog on purpose because we haven’t been told about the consequences.

We understand, as the humans with the big rational brains, that fireworks are just fireworks. We like to forget that fireworks can cause enormous harm when things go wrong. As the relative of firefighters and emergency medical staff, that’s one thing that was drilled into me from youth! Perhaps our dogs have more sense than some of us.

Even so, we may think that flooding doesn’t damage our dogs because if we’re 2km away from fireworks, the risk to our dog is minimal. The problem is that we don’t understand the very predictable consequences.


Flooding teaches dogs that nothing they do has any consequence. None of their attempts to escape and avoid things that they are afraid of work. The purpose of flooding is to extinguish behaviours.

Flooding does not extinguish emotions.

It simply teaches the dog that nothing they do about those feelings will make a difference. No attempt to escape or avoid will work.

In order to do this, the dog will usually have to be crated or kept on a lead with a muzzle.

People who practise this highly unethical and ineffective form of dog training would argue that in blocking dogs from avoiding or escaping from things that make them afraid, they will learn that these things are not harmful in the first place.

Part of the problem comes because humans can agree to flooding as a therapeutic process to overcome fears and phobias if they wish. Say you had agoraphobia and social phobia, you could sign up to a therapist locking you in a crowded room and not letting you out until your fears subsided and you started to change how you felt about people and crowds.

Obviously, this is a process you can consent to. With humans, it can also work. Coming out of Covid-19, I felt very strongly about crowded public transport where I’d been happily squashed into the Tokyo Metro or the London Underground in the past and thought nothing of it. Perhaps, I might have decided that flooding was the best way to get over my learned fears of crowds.

Why it’s different for dogs

Dogs can’t consent. If I chose a therapeutic method of having all my attempts to escape remove until I felt less afraid, then I would do so having consented. I would make an informed decision knowing how this extreme method of exposure works.

It can be very effective. I learn that I lived. I learned that I was successful. If I’m afraid of heights, going up enormously high towers or standing on the edge of cliffs might help me realise that there is nothing to be afraid of.

I can even rationalise it with therapists through language-based reappraisal techniques. As a friend pointed out, it’s not the height that will kill you… it’s the fall. Crowds don’t kill you, germs do. We could have rational conversations about the reality of these, about how they are normal human fears and how I can build agency through exposure.

A therapist can even teach me to reduce my own arousal levels. Following a bad crash in 1996, I struggled to drive in heavy traffic for a while. A therapist (not one who used flooding!) helped me learn ways to calm myself so that I could get used to driving again.

Although we can teach dogs to be still or to breathe more deeply, we can’t easily tell that this is causing them to feel relaxed. We cannot use language-based reappraisal techniques with our dogs, no matter how many cartoons we see of dogs on Freud’s couch. And we cannot get their informed consent about flooding.

Flooding in animals

Flooding in animals causes a phenomenon known as learned helplessness. In his research in the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Martin Seligman used stray dogs as his experimental model to demonstrate that those individuals who had been exposed to inescapable traumatic experiences simply learned to shut down.

When they were put in challenging situations in future, instead of trying to escape, they simply gave up.

Trying to ‘rebuild’ a dog who has learned that avoidance and escape do not work is long, laborious and depressing work. Ask anyone who works with dogs who have shut down. They live lives of chronic stress as a result of their experiences. Former racing greyhounds and street dogs are among the large populations of rescue dogs who struggle with learned helplessness.

It is no picnic teaching dogs who have learned to shut down completely.

Where flooding may work, when it will work and with which individuals is still very much of a lottery. Even dogs purpose-bred to tolerate high degrees of adversity, bred for emotional stability and raised to be curious, confident, bold problem-seekers such as dogs going in to detect landmine sites or to protect and patrol sites where munitions or other valuables are stored on frontline sites in active war zones are not exempt from trauma responses.

We simply cannot know with certainty whether a dog will overcome their fears or whether they will suffer when we use flooding as a method to help our dogs learn that the world is not such a scary place in the future.


Flooding also removes all agency from the dog. Agency is the skills we possess to manage our own feelings. Being able to see that I could take a deep breath and drive without panic was hugely beneficial for me because I learned new coping skills. In fact, the relaxation methods my therapist taught me – the Feldenkrais method and the Alexander technique – actually made me much more confident in many other areas of life. Both of these techniques are about posture and being aware of my own body.

Coupled with other cognitive skills I learned in those sessions, I had agency.

Agency is defined as active engavement with the world to build competencies that prepare us for novel challenges in the future.

My work with physical and mental health professionals did exactly that. The night before I had to present to a conference of 8000 high-statues delegates, I definitely used those skills to help me prepare for novel challenges.

When we teach dogs that behaviour doesn’t work, we are removing agency. This makes them more dependent on us, but because we are unreliable, we are untrustworthy. It is not a stable and trustful relationship.

Habituation & extinguishing feelings of fear

Gradual exposure methods used by expert trainers and behaviour consultants go to great lengths to avoid flooding. They build agency. They are designed to show our dogs that they have the skills to cope with challenge and they triumphed.

This is why they are considered to be the gold standard.

It takes skill to recognise that sweet spot of exposure, too. It’s not always the same, depending on a large number of factors. For instance, fireworks the night before would make a sensitive dog less able to tolerate the same level of stimulation they had perhaps coped with in training sessions the week before. Hormones, health and mood also affect our dogs’ ability to cope with things that usually make them feel afraid.

This is why it is usually best to work with a skilled professional. Those professionals should be able to explain why learning when not to fear is more fragile learning than learning when to fear.

Fear often returns and that is perfectly, perfectly normal and ordinary.

A skilled professional will also have ways to help this new learning take root and grow strong, avoiding the usual pitfalls of overcoming fear.

Because learning not to fear is challenging, it is easy to get it wrong. It’s also easy to confuse learned helplessness with feeling fine. Of course, the dog is not able to tell us that they still feel afraid, and so many guardians think that problems have been resolved only for the situation to worsen dramatically and often violently at the worst possible moment. Dogs who have been flooded are unpredictable, which is another reason habituation needs to be carried out thoughtfully and sensitively.


Helping fearful dogs overcome their fears can be tough. It’s easy to seek out the quick fix and the certainty of people who promise to resolve it in a week or two. It’s easy to hope that a two-week bootcamp will resolve everything. We can also hope that it is the best solution – short-term pain for long-term gain.

Unfortunately nothing can be further from the truth.

Flooding is a lottery. No professional can tell you with certainty that it will work and it won’t have the usual, predictable fallout.

Rebuilding a dog who has been flooded is the most difficult of all work because they have deliberately been taught that their feelings are not to be relied upon and that normal avoidance behaviours like barking and lunging are unsuccessful. Often, it is unsuccessful, even alongside medication. Then, we are left with the unfortunate realisation that there is no other option than behavioural euthanasia.

Trainers who use flooding often market themselves as a ‘last-ditch’ hope. In many ways, this is true. If flooding fails – which it often does – then there is no other option and it has, in effect, become the last “therapeutic intervention” that the dog will experience. Sadly, such techniques are popular with desperate and sad people who just want to give their dog a chance at life. Such trainers are also less likely to recommend medication too, which would bring relief to many anxious or fearful dogs.

To conclude

There is no harm in recognising that medication and management are solutions if it is not possible that a dog will ‘get used’ to scary things. Last night, as soon as the fireworks started, I put on my boots and my glasses, got the car out, put Lidy in it and drove away. She did not learn that fireworks are nothing really to be scared of. She learned that she can trust me to recognise her feelings and to help her.

There are many more predictable things that I can help her with. Her fear of strangers and of other dogs are two of those fears. Unfortunately, because fireworks are so unpredictable in the UK, this means that is very hard to properly medicate in preparation for them. Having faith in nutraceuticals when she has such strong fear responses is pointless even if we use them elsewhere.

We drove into town. We picked up some chips from the chippy and Lidy ate a sausage while we sat and listened to the bangs a whole lot further away. Then we went home. Working effectively with dogs sometimes means accepting that there are fears you can do little about, but you’re not going to turn it into a defeat or let the dog go through hours of panic. There are many approaches we can take.

If you’re working with dogs who have strong fears, you may find my webinar on Conditioned Safety Cues useful. Habituation and extinguishing fear are not the only tools we have available to us. Safety learning is a third strand we can add to our programmes that overcome many of the fatigue points of both habituation & learning when not to fear.