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Desensitization vs. Flooding

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The world can be a scary place at times.

Dogs, like people, have di erent fears. There are a variety of ideas oating around to help ease these fears. One particularly important distinction to make is between ooding and desensitization.

 
Desensitization is a method that involves very low levels of exposure to the fear object or stimulus.

Flooding on the other hand exposes the dog to the object all at once. For example, if a dog was afraid of a vacuum cleaner, desensitization may involve someone vacuuming upstairs while another person distracts the dog downstairs or outside with treats or play. Flooding may mean sticking the dog in a room with the vacuum until it calms down.

Flooding can be extremely traumatic to a dog. Imagine you were deathly terri ed of spiders and someone threw you in a room with a hundred daddy long legs. The idea is that dogs, like humans, can only continue producing adrenaline for so long. Eventually it will stop and the body will calm down. Unfortunately, dog owners have used this method unaware of the backlash that can come with it.

Flooding often makes a dog more anxious. It can lead to shutting down, aggression, or increased fear. If you lock your dog in the room and begin vacuuming around him, in addition to being terri ed of the machine, he may begin to associate you with fear. It could even cause a normally non- aggressive dog to redirect out of panic, putting you at risk of getting bit. Dogs cannot understand that somewhere down the road this event could help them; all they know is the intense fear in the moment.

Desensitization is a much safer and gentler approach. It involves time and patience, but is worth the wait. Sessions should be kept short and positive. It is important to keep your dog focused on you. A large majority of dogs are food motivated, so doing some basic obedience such as sit, down, stay, while delivering praise and treats is a great option. Over time, as the scary noise or object gets closer or louder, you may need to graduate to higher value treats such as deli meat or cheese rather than plain biscuits. If your dog isn’t food motivated, you can try engaging new toys, lots of belly rubs, or walks.

Going too fast with desensitization can make your dog more reactive. Paying attention to your dog and its body language can help determine whether to continue or end the session. Some examples of stress include lip licking, darting eyes, lowered tail, yawning, a tense body, head turning, or yawning. If your dog begins exhibiting these behaviors, it is a good time to call o the training session and resume at a later time.

Fear is very real, but luckily so is overcoming it. Exposure to all kinds of stimulus paired with treats from an early age can help prevent dogs from developing negative associations. Pre-existing fears do not have to be debilitating. Whether it is vacuum cleaners, bicycles, reworks, people with hats, other dogs, progress can be made. Here’s to lower stress levels for you and your best friend!

Here’s to lower stress levels for you and your best friend!

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