Dog on the Couch

2016-07-28 06:00

HI Susan,

I have a Spaniel mixed-breed who is terrified of swimming, but I do want the assurance of knowing he can swim. I am concerned because many friends have said that I should take him to the sea and force him in, but he is terrified and bolts away when I attempt this. Please can you help? I do not want him to drown accidentally.


Your friends, Lee, are suggesting a “therapy” known as flooding. Unfortunately, the results of quick fixes like this can have serious psychological consequences, because the animal is being forced into a situation perceived as dangerous. The fight, flight or freeze survival mechanisms kick into gear and might produce a fear-induced aggressive response. The result could be a negative learnt response that may be triggered by any item or situation the dog perceives as dangerous. Many people have been psychologically scarred by the crude old method of throwing them into swimming pools as very young children. It’s a dangerous hit-and-miss method to be avoided.

Phobias dealt with in this way with human subjects have the advantage of informed consent. For example, if a spider-phobic person agrees to be treated by being put into a room with spiders this is an informed choice. If it weren’t, it would rightly be considered a wicked, abusive act. The essential point I am emphasising here is that the dog is not able to be informed and to understand that this is a treatment and that no physical harm will ensue.

It is far kinder to gradually expose the dog to his fear while providing a positive reward. Although this is certainly time-consuming, the animal gradually learns that its fear is largely unfounded. If this is patiently and properly done it is safer and most likely to produce healthy and enduring results. Consult an experienced trainer or behaviourist if you are uncertain how to proceed. I cannot stress enough the importance of avoiding problem behaviours where possible, rather than trying to correct them once they have become ingrained. I hope this helps. - Susan Henderson© (accredited animal consultant info@dogbox

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