There are two popular ways people are taught to help their pets overcome fear: flooding and counter conditioning with desensitizing (CC/DS). I will explain what they are, but I want you to think about what process we should use and why.
We will pretend you are afraid of rats. You avoid anywhere a rat could be. This includes driving almost an hour away to go to the one pet supply place you know does not carry rodents. A photograph of a rat sends you into sweats. You are unable to visit friends in the city because cities mean rats. If you see a rat trap next to a building, you will not enter. This has caused you to miss appointments. As your fear grows, you are becoming a prisoner in your home. You ask me to help. Here is how the two methods could be used:
1) I place you in a room with a desk. I release several hundred rats and walk out, locking the door behind me. You are trapped. There is no escaping the room. Shaking and crying, you perch on the desk. Finally, you become mentally drained and physically exhausted. You stop responding to the rats. Seeing this change in your behavior, I release you from the room. I state you are cured. But are you? This is flooding.
2) We discuss a careful game plan. I discover you can manage looking at a simple line drawing of a rat. Slowly I progress to more realistic drawings until you can calmly look at a photograph. When you are ready, I begin working with toy rats. Then a domestic rat, in a secure cage, yards away. Slowly I work with you until you are ready to visit that closer pet supply store. I let you walk away from the rat cages. Eventually you can walk past the cages. Next, we go to the city. I let you know I will look for rats and warn you if I see one. If I do, you have the choice of crossing the street or staying our course. You are more relaxed, and your panic has greatly decreased. This is CC/DS.
Now, to look at what can happen when we flood our pets trying to help through a fear. Max (name changed) is a former client dog. Max was having crate issues. He fussed.
The first trainer contacted gave common advice: put the pup in the crate and if he fusses, ignore him. This is a form of flooding. The thought is eventually Max would learn the crate is not a bad place and he would settle. Over the following months, Max began struggling, biting and refusing to enter the same room as the crate. The couple’s vet referred them to me.
Since the crate was terrifying, I began to use CC/DS to help Max acclimate to being left in a safe room. I wrote out a careful protocol. Since his people were retired, they had the time to devote to the work. Over the weeks there was improvement.
When implementing a Counter Conditioning and Desensitizing program, the pace is determined by the fearful. Rushing things can undo all our work. This is what happened to Max. His people decided one evening to go out for hours and test him back in the crate. By the time they got home, Max was a panicked wreck. It is important with a CC/DS program that you work with a trainer, ask questions, and follow directions.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.