Understanding Flooding And Learned Helplessness In Training

I had been looking forward to that night for several months, since the day I first heard about the upcoming performance one of my favorite local bands. My friends and I got there over two hours early to reserve our spot, before heading across the street to get dinner.  By the time we got back […] The post Understanding Flooding And Learned Helplessness In Training first appeared on So Much PETential.

Understanding Flooding And Learned Helplessness In Training

I had been looking forward to that night for several months, since the day I first heard about the upcoming performance one of my favorite local bands. My friends and I got there over two hours early to reserve our spot, before heading across the street to get dinner.  By the time we got back to our seats, the concert area was filled. There was not even space for two more chairs. I could hardly wait for the music to start. Then, in the empty seats in front of us, a man joined his party with his leashed dog. Let’s just say, my long-anticipated evening suddenly got off to an unexpected, unwelcome turn. And that is how I will begin this post that will talk about flooding and learned helplessness as it pertains to dog training.

understanding flooding and learned helplessness in dog trainingLet’s go back to my summer concert. My friends and I were ready to sway our arms and sing along. We were still catching up with each other when I first noticed the man and his dog in front of us. His large dog wore a taught leash that was attached to a prong collar. Long before the band started, I could see his dog’s tail tucked and body posture lowered. There was a lot of eye blinking and yawning. At first his dog tried to move away but was unable as the leash kept him right at his owner’s feet.

The music started. I felt the beat travel down to my feet. I knew every word that I heard. We were there to enjoy the moment. But I couldn’t keep my eyes from wandering to that dog in front of us, the one that was fidgeting constantly, still trying to move but feeling restrained, blinking, yawning, lip licking. I saw the man and the woman with him petting his dog. Maybe they were trying to help his pet feel better. Maybe they were just trying to keep his pet still. I just knew that I was seeing a dog in distress, which caused me distress, and I was not able to enjoy my favorite band.

When there was a break, I made up my mind and told my friends I was going to say something. It was an opportunity to educate someone and hopefully make a positive impact on the welfare of the pet.

The man told me his dog enjoys being around people and so he thought it would be a good outing for both of them. He knew that his dog was fidgeting in the beginning but he thought his dog was feeling better as the concert kept going. I described what I saw. I explained that, what looked to him like a much calmer dog, was actually a dog experiencing learned helplessness. I could see in his face how badly he felt. He obviously cared a lot for his dog and didn’t want to knowingly cause his dog pain.  I knew I had reached him.

With that, I went to find my friends. We returned to our seats for the second half, to find the seat in front of us empty. Several songs into the set, the man returned…without his dog. I could enjoy the rest of the night. Good for that man being open to learn and doing the right thing for his dog after realizing his dog was still very much stressed.

This happens a lot. People bring their dogs to large events thinking it will be a positive activity – and for some dogs, it is – but for many others, those dogs would much rather be left at home. I’ve also seen people walking young puppies through crowded spaces in the name of socialization but they don’t realize they could be overwhelming their little friends.

What is flooding in behavior terms?

Scientifically speaking, the American Psychological Association defines flooding as a technique in behavior therapy in which the individual is exposed directly to a maximum-intensity anxiety-producing situation or stimulus (either described or real) without any means for escape during exposure. The aim is to diminish or extinguish the undesired response.

But at what cost? Remember, this involves pushing the animal into a very anxiety provoking level of response without any means for escape until that animal shows relative calmness…or at least calmness to the uneducated eye. A dog that is shut down – maybe still, maybe laying down with his head tucked in and eyes closed, or standing stoic with tail tucked down -can be just as ‘over threshold’ as a dog that is barking, lunging, pacing, snarling. It just looks different.

At most, there may be a neutral feeling but more than likely, it can make the feelings and behaviors stronger. Aggression, deeper fear and anxiety, avoidance are just some. I can tell you this. I am afraid of cicadas. If you locked me in a room of those buzzing evil creatures and told me you wouldn’t let me out until I stopped screaming, I may stop screaming (and pretty quickly) but I may never forgive you for doing that to me.

Learned helplessness is another potential effect. It is a phenomenon in which exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available. Essentially, they are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events, which, in turn, undermines the motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations.

I still have a fear of flying and every time I board a plane to rise into turbulent air, it only strengthens my emotions and all of my internal behaviors that go along with it. I remember the time that the sky was darker than night as we entered the airport. I began trembling. I felt nauseous inside. As we waited at the gate to learn if our plane was going to be delayed, I could feel my heart rate beating quickly. I began sweating. That night, our flight was delayed but not because of what we were going to fly into, but because the Atlanta airport where we were going to land, was experiencing ‘bad’ weather.  By the time we boarded, I was exhausted and still terrified. However, I entered the plane with everybody else, then sat down, closed my eyes tight, gripped my seat and tried my best to take my mind to another place. I was in a state of learned helplessness.

When a client whose dog has big feelings about being restrained, handled and approached by unknown people tells me his groomer reported back that his dog was ‘fine’ during the appointment, I always ask, “What does ‘fine’ look like?” It could very well be that that dog was actually not ‘fine’ but in a state of learned helplessness.

I’ve seen videos of re-active leashed dogs that were being trained with an e-collar to ‘fix’ the problem by exposing the dog to the stimulus (often another dog or a moving vehicle) and delivering a static electric stimulus to the dog’s neck when it does the unwanted behavior. In one video of a ‘fixed’ dog, I recall seeing the handler walking it past other dogs that were behind a fence. While the ‘fixed’ dog did not bark or lunge, it did blink its eyes, lick its lips, tuck its tail, stiffen its body and avoid eye contact as it passed. Sure, that dog was not doing the unwanted behaviors but clearly it was feeling a great deal of stress.

More Negative Effects Of Flooding Your Dog

The biological and psychological impact of those extreme stress provoking experiences can ripple. If I have plans to fly and I see the weather forecast has a potential for storms on my travel day, I may begin getting nervous days in advance. If your dog had a scary experience at the groomer or vet, your dog may be more worried at the next visit. Additionally, through associative learning, your dog may start shivering as soon as you pull into the parking lot or even as soon as you get into the car (because the car can take your dog to scary places).

Flooding Your Dog In Everyday Life

Even with the best of intentions, flooding can happen in a variety of ways. Below are just a few examples of flooding pets to change behavior:

Sitting next to a scared dog’s crate or on the other side of a gate (or scared bird’s cage), in an effort to get your pet to feel better about you being in his space.

Feeding your scared dog only by giving food by hand (forcing your dog to be close to you in order to eat).

Walking your dog (or puppy) through a crowded event on a leash (restraint) where unfamiliar people and other animals are very close, to get your dog used to these things.

Taking your dog that has big feelings about other dogs and stimulus, to a training class where he is kept on a taught leash in close proximity to other dogs.

Bringing your dog to an enclosed dog park where another dog (or several other dogs) is bullying your dog and your dog can not escape.

Forcing your dog to do what you want your dog to do in training.

How can you help your fearful or re-active dog while minimizing flooding?

There is a lot to unpack with that question.

To begin, know this. During your pet’s stress event, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream which cause a range of involuntary physiological responses such as increased heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. The adrenaline causes airways in the lungs to widen, which also allows more oxygen to flow through the body. This results in greater sensitivity and alertness.

Changing your pet’s undesirable behavior using the Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive (LIMA) training involves teaching with choice and positive reinforcement as much as possible, making sure your pet’s needs are being met, and using desensitization, classical counter conditioning and response substitution.

Desensitization, Classical Counter Conditioning and Response Substitution

These are three helpful approaches (often used together) when it comes to changing your pet’s underlying emotions (and reflexive behaviors) and teaching your pet a desired behavior instead.

Systematic desensitization is an approach to not just overcoming fear, but also to teaching the animal to re-associate the fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting stimulus. (This process is called counter conditioning.) With systematic desensitization, you gradually expose the animal to what is scary to it and the criteria for advancing to the next step is your watching his calm behavior and only moving forward at a pace that does not elicit even the mildest of fear responses. The beauty of this is that the animal is always in total control. And empowerment builds confidence.

Response substitution is teaching the animal (using positive strategies) to replace the undesirable behavior with the desirable behavior.  As an example, the dog can learn to look at his handler instead of lunging at the dog across the parking lot, in order to get distance from the other dog.

Need some help?  Please reach out!

contact Lisa Desatnik

The post Understanding Flooding And Learned Helplessness In Training first appeared on So Much PETential.