Waterboarding and the Bond

Waterboarding: a torture technique whereby individuals are treated in a manner that makes them believe they are going to drown.

Surely, you may be thinking, this is not a suitable subject for the post-holiday season! Emotionally, I agree. On the other hand, you may be as surprised as I was to discover how many behavioral/training concepts directly or indirectly relate to water. This connection popped into my mind because two of these tend to raise their heads during the pre-holiday season and often linger into January, fueled by a human desire for quick results when animals have problems.

First some background. Although the waterboarding terminology is relatively new, the technique and the rationale supporting it has ancient roots. As early as the first century CE (a.k.a. AD), St. Augustine and others in positions of religious and civil authority maintained that such punishments represented a form of mercy even if the recipient died in the process. They made this irrational leap by defining the process as “reverse baptism”. For less grievous offenses miscreants, in medieval Europe and colonial America, miscreants were tied to ducking stools and dunked in water to teach them the error of their ways. Some survived to sin no more while others died. (Today this approach often is used to raise funds for various worthy causes.)Ducking-Stool

Using water as a “teaching” tool occurred in other forms that persist to this day. A common one involves throwing kids or dogs into deep water to teach them to swim. We may hope that at least some adults who do this have no intention of letting their youngsters or animals drown. But it seems reasonable to assume that a fair number of children and animals might not believe this when those people toss them into deep water without warning. Other people who lack the intelligence or sufficient attachment to help a floundering child or animal may take a rigid “Sink or swim” approach. As a result, some of these children and animals do drown. But regardless of the perpetrator’s specific motivation and the results, once again they rationalized the approach by saying they do it for the child’s or animal’s own good.

Another form of water-based disciplinary education involves the use of watery blasts as weapons to stop perceived undesirable behavior. In the most punitive variation, enforcers of one sort or another use water cannons capable of causing serious

injury for crowd control. In the canine realm, those ignorant of normal canine anatomy and sexual behavior blast mating dogs with streams of cold water to terminate what the blasters consider lewd and lascivious canine behavior. Unless those in both groups stick around long enough to see the damage they cause to their targets, they may convince themselves that these approaches are humane. But while ignorance (hopefully) fuels the majority, no doubt at least a few psychopaths man some of those hoses and enjoy inflicting pain on others.


Water as a means to modify another’s behavior also may be waterless. One such approach nonetheless acknowledged its watery roots with its name: flooding. In theory behavioral flooding involves repeatedly exposing an individual to highly distressing situations without danger, but with no way to escape until the individual no longer reacts to these circumstances.

This brings me to the holiday and post-holiday season and the human-companion animal bond. Combine all the stress associated with the holiday season, the ubiquitous but irrational media-fueled quest for an all-positive experience, some people’s equally irrational belief that their animals owe them the same, and pets whose previously ignored behavioral problems threaten to destroy these illusions, and questionable techniques may seem like viable responses.

Of those that actually involve water, the water pistol shows up fairly often in the training literature, particularly when cats are involved. However I’ve also heard of its use in (usually small) dogs. Although often promoted as such a benign form of punishment that it doesn’t tarnish one’s all-positive image or brand, it can backfire and cause some cats and dogs to become more aggressive. Meanwhile another group of animals may become confused because their pistol-wielding owners are too slow on the draw. In the latter cases, the animals already have stopped the perceived problem behavior when they get hit and associate the punishment with whatever non-problematic behavior they happened to be displaying at that time. This does not result in quality human-animal communication.

A third smaller, but intriguing, group of animals—mostly cats in my experience—find the benefits of these watery interactions with their owners outweigh any costs of getting wet. In short, they perceive the squirt gun punishment as play. Some animals enjoy it so much that they deliberately display the problem behavior to encourage their owners to grab their pistols, yell and chase the animal around the house. Admittedly it’s great exercise and, given the positive emotional charge these animals place on it, it serves as a valid form of environmental enrichment. But I wouldn’t recommend it as a problem-solver except for feline or canine boredom.

A fair amount of waterless flooding also is used when people want quick results. In these situations the animals, typically dogs, deliberately are placed in situations the animals find distressing. Dogs stressed by motorcycles, cars, or delivery trucks are forced to sit by busy highways until they can tolerate these vehicles. Dogs distressed by other dogs are forced to sit and face other dogs on the other side of fences. The throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool version of the latter involves muzzling a group of equally distressed dogs and forcing them to sit in a circle until they can tolerate each others’ presence. Sometimes the frightened animals also simultaneously are fed treats, thereby triggering a mind-boggling combination of conflicting messages that surely must wreak havoc with the dog’s physiology.

From a bond perspective, I have a big problem with flooding when used on animals because a key element when this approach is used in people is that the people are fully aware that they are in no danger. However that’s not the case with many and probably most of these dogs. If they trusted their owners to protect them from motorcycles, delivery trucks, or other dogs they wouldn’t be snarling and lunging at those vehicles or dogs in an attempt to protect themselves and their owners. The problem isn’t that these dogs don’t like motorcycles, UPS trucks or other dogs: the problem is that these dogs don’t trust their people to protect them.

What this means is that, when such approaches work, they often work because the constant exposure to the stressor causes the owner to relax. That, in turn, changes that person’s physiology to communicate a less needy state that enables the dog to relax too. But how reliable the dog’s responses in the same or comparable situations will be in the long run will depend on multiple factors. Not the least of these is how much the animal’s trust in the owner has been eroded by the use of this approach… Because once that trust is lost, it takes a lot more than a bag of treats to earn it back.


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