Confrontation instead of training – overstimulation in anxious dogs

Confrontation instead of training – overstimulation in anxious dogs

The training of dogs is very complex. In some areas, we use methods from human psychotherapy to cure behavior problems. Many therapeutic approaches can be adapted to dogs, but not all of them. Flooding is a method of therapy for humans, which is strongly discouraged in the treatment of anxious dogs. I’ll be happy to explain why.

First, let’s do a thought experiment: think of your worst fear – maybe driving in the elevator, lying in a closed coffin, or being trapped in a small room with an animal that panics you. Now imagine that someone whom you half trust places you in a situation in which your fear is maximally triggered – without warning, without escape, without a solution strategy, without someone by your side who could help. A terrible idea isn’t it?

Breach of trust, loss of control, helplessness – this is exactly what dogs experience when attempting therapy with overstimulation.

Nevertheless, there are trainers and dog owners who choose this training approach – sometimes knowingly, sometimes unwittingly. Dogs who are afraid of strangers are closely confronted with groups of people for hours. Dogs who are afraid of cars are tied up on busy roads for hours. Or dogs that are afraid of other dogs are exposed to a group of strange dogs for hours.

The aim of this approach is that the dog gets used to the fight and realizes that there is no reason for his fear.

Any attempt to escape by the dog is prevented or prevented during the overstimulation so that the dog cannot escape the situation. In order for this therapeutic approach to work, the duration of the overstimulation must last until the dog shows a decrease in fear and relaxation in the body language and this can take a few hours.

In the treatment of dogs, flooding is a classic quick-fix therapy.

Overstimulation as a method is convenient for the person who uses it, but extremely stressful for the dog to whom it is used. You should know some details of this therapeutic approach:

In humans, flooding can be carried out both in the imagination (flooding in sensu) or in reality (flooding in vivo). In the treatment of anxious dogs, only the use of “flooding in vivo” can be carried out, i.e. a massive confrontation with the fear trigger in reality.

When flooding in vivo, the human client is confronted with the actual fear situations and stimuli so strongly that fear is triggered. The aim is to trigger a reaction overload by confronting the maximum of anxiety-causing stimuli (stimulus overload). Accompanied by the familiar therapist, the client should experience that the fear has no catastrophic effects and decreases on its own.

Since flooding leads to a massive stress reaction and extreme stress on the client, this method is also controversial in the treatment of people.

A long and close relationship of trust between therapist and client is essential for the success of the therapy. The therapist must also have sufficient knowledge of the theory and practice of the method, since poor implementation leads to a worsening of the mental state and may worsen fear in the future (sensitization).

Before using this method, people must give their full consent to what is happening during the sessions and what they should do and can ask for breaks or abort during the sessions. Often, many preparatory sessions precede this path of therapy.

All important therapeutic aspects that must be taken into account in humans cannot be implemented in dogs.
There can be no comparable trusting therapist-client relationship between dog and human. The dog cannot consent and does not understand what is happening to it. He doesn’t know that it should be for his best and he doesn’t know what to do, because nobody has taught him that before.

A person can be interviewed during flooding sessions and receive verbal support from the therapist. In a dog, we can only speculate about the internal conditions and interpret his body language. In addition, we cannot influence the perception of our dogs during the overstimulation. It can only be guessed whether the dog is being treated after hours of fear or is simply exhausted.

If you start an overstimulation in the dog, all you have to do is “close your eyes and through”, because a termination would have fatal consequences for future behavior. In addition, the stimulus intensity must be maintained continuously until an ebb of anxiety and relaxation are visible in the dog’s body language. In many cases, this is not feasible at all, because to do this, the situation in all its facets would have to be created 100% through controlled environmental design.

So overstimulation is equivalent to Russian roulette with the psyche of the dog.
The use of this method is ethically and morally questionable. The Animal Welfare Act states: “The purpose of the Animal Welfare Act is to protect people’s responsibility for animals as fellow creatures, their lives and well-being. Nobody is allowed to cause pain, suffering or harm to an animal for no reasonable reason. “

Fear is recognized as “suffering” under the Animal Welfare Act.
So what reasonable reason should there be to make an animal suffer from such therapy?

In training we have an infinite number of ways to treat fear in dogs. Thanks to desensitization, management measures and good training, we can help anxious dogs without violating the Animal Welfare Act. We can help our dogs gain confidence to deal with the anxiety triggers. We can help them with environmental training and use medication in extreme cases.

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