We face fear flooding all the time in normal life as people. Every time we do something new. Maybe it is the first time you take your new puppy to puppy class, or maybe that first Dog Agility Trial. How good you are at handling stress of this nature will certainly impact how easily and quickly you adapt to the circumstances around you. This is also true of your dog and in fact, if they sense the apprehension in you, it will be amplified in them.
How you adapt and how quickly depends a lot on how you normally respond to new circumstances. If you did this a lot as a youngster, say playing sports, or even accompanying your parents on their activities, then maybe it is easy for you to handle. Not everyone has this experience nor these skills and that is the same for dogs. In fact, at first, all of this exposure is completely unnatural to them.
Dogs that are trained to experience their environments without fear, early on and consistently throughout their life, will respond to new environments and circumstances with curiosity and maybe concern depending on the nature of the new environment, followed by investigation to determine level of safety, and then comfort and control come next. A fearful dog will respond with anxiety and escalating fear as they near and enter the new environment. Often lack of support, or reassurance accompanies new places, so fear is heightened operating on their own.
Fear responses are often reinforced by owners responding as they force their dog to experience the stress by flooding them with it, restricting their attempts to reduce the fear and certainly not helping them do so, and often they go unnoticed in many instances. In reality, the best response by the owner is to recognize the cause of the fear, help them reduce it by moving away from it with them. Show them how to reduce it by letting them move away, staying connected with them and then reassuring and calming them. Once calm again, careful exposure to the stress, always making sure they experience just a little and learn they can reduce it and calm themselves enough to cautiously investigate and gain comfort at their own speed and therefore move closer to the source of the fear to reduce it. This is a cognitive skill I Want all of my dogs to posses.
I use this approach to teach dogs to get over stress in dog agility rings at trials this way. They get stressed in the ring, then run away, or do some barking, sniffing, nipping, etc. so I always, move away from the obstacle, ask my dog to return, with them knowing I will reassure and comfort them and never be frustrated, I then calm them a little (not too much as I want fast dogs) and when they get to where I want them to be, I excitedly show them the obstacle and away we go again, forget about the past. Always positive
So dogs that are trained to deal with the stress of new environments and stressful circumstances have the skills to cope and adapt and therefore reduce their fear appropriately and quickly. They can do this on their own even, but certainly are never required to do so. Exposing them to fearful circumstances more quickly, even immediately is possible and not likely to be traumatic. As they deal with it, stress reduces and they are calm again as a result. Fear flooding in this sort of confident and capable dog is a normal part of their life and in fact they can go to quite strange and bizarre places and not necessarily experience anxiety at all.
I know with the number of times I have flown Stevie Ray and the places and circumstances in which we have competed has lead her to be quite comfortable getting on and off airplanes in completely strange lands. She always goes straight for my luggage and her ball. She plays ball as always and enjoys her surroundings whether it is the first time, or one of many trips to a particular place. I have never seen any sign of stress after we arrive at a destination. We are able to compete immediately, or in one case I was able to breed her successfully after flying her across Canada and living at a complete strangers house. No sign of stress and success breeding as a result.
I am currently working on Stevie Ray’s pups to be of similar mind, but this is a long slow process of building experience in a positive way. Stressful and bad experiences that provoke intense anxiety and fear, even in a young and confident dog can have long term damaging effects on their psyche, so care and continual effort on my part is always needed. I can never assume how they will respond and need to plan carefully. I generally want to control the environment they are exposed to so they always have an opportunity to reduce stress and anxiety on their own. If they are exposed to unmanageable stress, they won’t be able to reduce stress naturally and a problem can result. So this is where my diligent management of circumstances allows experiences to be stressful, but manageable. Fear is dealt with and is replaced with comfort and confidence. Fear flooding is a normal process for these dogs like it is for most people.
Unfortunately, this healthy response to stress does not occur with fear flooding in fearful dogs unless they have already been taught some skills to reduce anxiety and therefore fear. Their only ability to deal with stress and anxiety is by being afraid and behaving out of fear. No investigation, no curiosity, just stress behaviors like barking, sniffing, scratching, nipping, biting, yawning, etc., withdrawal and mental shutdown and/or possibly lashing out at what causes their fear. Fear responses get amplified and new fear responses are added in their attempts to cope, but here is nothing natural and they completely lack the ability to calm themselves.
In fearful dogs, fear flooding does not cause a biological response to suppress adrenaline and the fight or flight response to diminish. It can only cause amplification of the fight or flight response. This results in high metabolic activity and in addition to stress behavior, dogs become weak and mentally incapable of supporting their fear response. Eventually they may tire and appear to succumb to their fear, however, they almost always remain afraid and remember the source and association of the fear causing stimulus and now associate it completely to you.
My experience with fearful dogs is that they know what they are afraid of and the source of their fear quite well. It if is people, then anything to do with fear flooding makes you also the source of their fear and associates anything about you with that fear as well. They also have incredibly accurate memories for all things they experience and especially for those circumstances that provoke fear and who they attribute it to. Over time it all adds up to distrust and distress whenever they face something new, or whenever you try to help them, something I truly want to avoid in my dogs.
I have witnessed my fearful dog, Dylan, who always overreacted in her youth to physical impact with another dog, or maybe a tree while playing and quickly generalized any fearful circumstance to all involved. She once hit a tree while playing chase with a dog. That dog was owned by a woman, who hung out with another dog owner and her dog. Most of the time the 2 dogs and 2 owners were present together and I associated them together. On the occasion Dylan ran into the tree, one person was not there at the time of the incident, but Dylan never reacted the same to either of the 2 dogs, or both people, present or not when the incident occurred. she would no longer play with either person, or either dog, despite one person not being present during the incident. An example of the power of association in a fearful dog.
The use of fear flooding in fearful dogs builds negative associations between the owner and the dog and decreases the power of the relationship. If you work the opposite way and treat the fear instead, the relationship to the owner is improved and strengthened instead. Since the relationship with your dog is the sole reason for having one, I cannot recommend the use of fear flooding in fearful dogs. This can only build distrust and distance between you and your dog. They will associate you with the sources of stress and anxiety and will always respond to stress poorly. Their responses to stress will get worse over time and your presence will make things worse instead of better as well. Rather than providing reassurance, you provide anxiety and distress.
It is far better to treat the source of their fear in fearful dogs. Reducing fear is a constant process and, as I have written previously is harder in a fearful dog, but it is still the only way to provide them normal tools for dealing with stress. Since becoming weak as a result of AIHA, Dog Dylan shows more fear in many circumstances due to the fact that she is nowhere near as strong as she once was. This came on as her weakness grew and her initial responses to dealing with stress with fear reappeared partially due to the use of prednisone, but also as always it is her default response to stress, engrained by her early life.
I see this apprehension in her when we walk and she sees sudden movement, or hears sudden loud sounds. I constantly see her look for reassurance, looking back to make eye contact, even wanting me to walk between her and the road. These are all things that help her now to reduce stress and that she has learned with me. They were not part of her repertoire initially when she came into my home. These are skills I have worked on with her over the 10 years she has lived with me. She now handles stress so much better and does not cower, or lash out as she did initially. I have to be more careful of her fears to introduce her more cautiously, but she is infinitely better than she once was thanks to my effort to teach her positively and without fear flooding.
I did use fear flooding on her briefly when she first came home and we went to our first puppy training school. The use of fear to have control was the primary method used and I learned quickly could get some control, but that I immediately lost all trust and our bond would be constantly weakened rather than strengthened. Dylan always knew who the source of her fear was. There was never a time when you could fool her. None of the fear inducing, or flooding tricks used did anything other than increase distrust and make it harder for her to learn everything else.
I am glad I quickly found a new approach and I have been using desensitization and positive associations to build her trust and our relationship. Out relationship has continually grown and her ability to handle strange people places and dogs is amazing. She is now a mature good dog. One I am certain who would not have turned out anything like she is today had I used fear flooding to shape her world.
Fear flooding is a normal part of life and is easy for dogs capable of handling stress, but is dangerous and undesired in fearful dogs unless your goal is to increase overall fear and shutdown your dog mentally (learned helplessness, or maybe cause real dangerous aggression against you and others) and risk destroying your relationship with them. I hardly think that is anyone’s goal.
This is certainly not my goal. My goal is to have a dog who loves me and does what I want because I ask and not because I demand them, or they fear me. All my dogs are this way, whether they came into my home on day 1, after 7 weeks, or after 6 months. I don’t not wish to have my dogs fear me, it is the love we share that bonds us. The idea that fear and dominance are required for leadership is arcane and not at all necessary with dogs. Dogs are not wolves, they have an innate desire to receive love and happiness from us, not anger and meanness. It is our responsibility to deliver on this.