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Part 2: Flooding


One of the other common techniques I have seen Cesar Millan utilize, and that I strongly urge against using, is a technique sometimes referred to as “Flooding”.

Flooding is essentially forcing the animal into emotional overload until he shuts down and no longer reacts to the source of whatever fear he previously reacted to. We tend to call this same technique used in parenting as forcing the child “to confront his fears”.

We’ve all heard the story of the boy or girl who was afraid of swimming and/or the water. One day on a fishing trip, or hanging out on a dock near the lake, a parent (usually a father, sorry guys) pushes the child into the water where the child must either “sink or swim” – literally. Sometimes, swimming results, and sometimes, the parent must dive in with all his clothes on to save the child from drowning, while the other parent screams in horror and the child’s siblings snicker in the background.

At the end of this life lesson, the child either no longer has a fear of water, because the fear has literally been shocked out of him, or the child never goes anywhere near the water again and has to spend thousands of dollars in therapy later in life trying to work out deep seeded resentment toward his parents and daddy issues.

Think this same flurry of emotions and lasting impressions doesn’t happen in the mind of your canine companion? Think again.

Fear is one of the most basic emotions, and it is shared by all mammals, from rats to primates. Your canine compatriot is no exception. The consequences of fear can be terrible (as I discussed before and won’t get into here).

Flooding may seem like a good idea, because you’re the human, you have the superior brain, and you know that whatever your pup is afraid of isn’t going to hurt her. Maybe her fear is getting in her way, maybe it’s getting in yours. It’s hard to explain to a dog that the loud noises made by our 100 forms of technology aren’t going to hurt her. So why not just show her by forcing her to keep space with her fear until she gets over it? It makes sense. I know; I’ve done it.

I’ve seen flooding practiced most commonly with horses, so I will use an equine example here.

I’ve worked at half a dozen barns and at least three trail riding facilities in my life, but I remember this barn and this event in particular. Every day, multiple times a day, we would take a group of three to six inexperienced (mostly) people out for an hour or so walk through the woods. The horses we used for this were what horse people call “bomb proof” horses. They were typically older, slower and less sensitive. They were used to following the leader at a slow and steady pace no matter how hard the person on top of them kicked, screamed, squirmed, pulled on the bit or lashed them with the reins while pretending to be a cowboy. They’d all walked the same path a thousand times. They’d seen all manner of dogs, cats, horses and people. These were the kind of horses that could see a mountain lion and just stand there and blink. Like I said, bomb proof.

Jasper was just like the rest of them except that he was afraid of balloons. I’ve never heard the whole story, but the rumor was that when he was a colt, someone popped a balloon in his face, and he never quite recovered, which was fine, as barns don’t typically have many balloons. Except that one day, out on our usual trail, we came upon a child’s birthday party being held in one of the pavilions on the way. Naturally, there were a dozen or so children running around with balloons tied to their wrists.

Before I could dismount and get over to Jasper, and before the rear guide had even seen the danger, Jasper was rearing. The man riding him hit the ground with a thud, and Jasper ran all the way back to the barn. I got to do a thirty minute pony ride with the displaced (but thankfully uninjured) man on my more spirited mount, who fought me for control of the bit the whole way back.

The owner was not pleased with Jasper. He decided to end Jasper’s fear, but he didn’t have time to waste, as Jasper was a regular and favorite trail horse. He decided to flood him.

What seemed amusing at the time now actually frightens me to think about. What we did you should not only “not try at home”, but you should not try at all. And I mean ever.

Everyone present was an incredibly skilled and experienced horseman, but we shouldn’t have done this, because first and foremost, it was ridiculously dangerous. Second, it permanently damaged the horse. Of course, this was before I knew anything about positive reinforcement training, and this was just “how it was done” (and how it is still commonly done).

So poor Jasper got put in crossties in his stall, and someone deposited about a dozen helium balloons in there with him, then jumped out and slammed the door. I’ll never forget the way he screamed. After he ripped his crossties out of the wall, he slammed his whole body into the doors, rattling them out of the bottom tracks. He kicked the sides of the stall, and you could hear the wood splintering like bone. His chest heaved, foam poured out of his mouth, his eyes rolled. He looked like a madman.

After about a minute, everyone stopped laughing. I sat down on a hay bale. We waited. After a while, the kicking stopped, then the screaming. I’d like to say it was less than fifteen minutes, but I don’t know. It seemed like an eternity. But finally, all we could hear was Jasper’s heavy breathing. As his owner opened his stall door, he called him stubborn and took a drink from his water bottle. The plastic cracked.

I never participated in flooding again. It scared the shit out of me. For Jasper’s part, he never reacted around balloons again, but after a month or so, he was deemed an unfit trail horse and retired. He threw a woman after she took a drink from her water bottle and the plastic cracked.

I’ve seen flooding like this practiced to a lesser degree with dozens of horses. I’ve done it myself. Have a horse that’s afraid of loud noises? Bang a bunch of pots and pans outside his stall door until he’s calm. Have a horse that’s afraid of dogs? Tie him up near one and let it bark at him until he stands still.

I’ve also seen Cesar Millan do this with dogs. Have a dog that’s afraid of a particular floor surface? Drag him onto it and force him to walk. If he doesn’t, physically correct him. It’s a quick fix to fear.

Except it’s not. Because the fear doesn’t go away, it is only suppressed. And suppressed fear can easily be transferred onto something else, just like Jasper’s water bottle. Typically, the fear is transferred onto another environmental stimulus. Your dog may not be afraid of the linoleum, or the vacuum or the TV anymore, but he might be afraid of the sound of your sneakers, or the ceiling fan or the smell of a particular candle. Or, he may be afraid of you.

I’m glad that Jasper’s owner was kind enough to let him live out his days at his farm instead of selling him to the meat market, because he taught me a very valuable life lesson. What Jasper taught me was to be wary of the quick fixes, because sometimes, you get more than you bargained for.