Features April 2013 Issue

Across a Threshold

Does your dog sometimes “lose it” or shut down? Understanding his “thresholds” will help you teach him to stay calm and happy.

The term “threshold” is often tossed around by dog behavior experts when they talk about working through a canine behavior issue. When you work with your dog on, for example, reactivity with other dogs or fear of children, the usual recommendation is to work with the dog “under threshold.”

The concept is most often used in relationship to canine aggression, fear, and reactivity. But understanding a behavior “threshold” is helpful for everyday training and learning situations, too. It can be a key element when socializing puppies or young dogs, instrumental in teaching excitable dogs to be calm, and essential for insecure dogs to find confidence.

What exactly is a threshold? Consider the threshold of a front door. When you cross a threshold, you move from one space to another. A behavior threshold is a similar concept; it’s when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another. If you spend time with a dog who is concerned about other dogs, you have probably witnessed the moment when he or she moves from seemingly okay into out-of-control behavior. That is going over threshold.

Here are five things that everyone can benefit from knowing about thresholds.

1. It’s not always about barking and lunging. When talking about “going over threshold,” most people picture a dog that suddenly becomes reactive: barking, lunging, and snarling. But there are many other expressions of being over threshold. Some include:

Shutting down or freezing.

Being overexcited (for example jumping or mouthing).

Being distracted to the point of no connection.

Doing “zoomies” (zipping around crazily).

When you are with your dog, you may notice when your dog stops taking treats, stops playing, or suddenly is calmer than usual. These may be a signal that your dog is approaching a threshold, or has even already moved from a comfortable emotional state into an uncomfortable state.

2. Over threshold is more than behaving badly. When a dog is over threshold it generally means that the dog is behaving in a way that we don’t like. More importantly, it means the dog is in a state of distress.

When a dog crosses an emotional threshold, certain physiological and psychological effects begin to take place. The dog may breathe more heavily and his heart rate may increase. A dog who is over threshold is reacting rather than thinking; he is in a fight, flight, freeze, or fool-around state. He may not be able to listen to you (or even hear you). In addition, when a dog is over threshold, you cannot teach him to behave differently. A dog will not be able to learn until he back under threshold.

3. Thresholds change constantly! Unlike the threshold of your front door, an emotional or behavior threshold doesn’t stay in the same place; it can change from minute to minute and from one situation to the next.

The setting for a dog’s threshold at a particular moment depends on a variety of criteria. For example, take a dog I will call River. He is a little insecure in new places, does not particularly like other dogs, and he becomes very excited by movement. Alone, none of these are a problem for River. He may be nervous in new places, but generally, he just gets a little extra sniffy. He’s not happy about other dogs, but will usually tolerate them. He gets excited when a bicycle goes by, but can still listen when called away.

This dog has a past history as a highly reactive dog. Indeed, it appears that he’s moments away from “going over threshold.” He’s spotted a dog on the far side of the field, has tuned out his owner, and seems to be ready to start barking and lunging in excitement and/or frustration.

But if all of these things happen at once – walking in a new place, several bikes speed by very close, and a young dog suddenly intrudes on his space – it’s too much for River to handle. The combination may cause him to go over threshold and snarl at the young dog.

Some of the things that can affect threshold are:

The number of triggers (the more, the bigger the risk). As in the example above, a lot of small triggers at the same time pushed River over threshold. Note: A trigger is not always something your dog is nervous about or afraid of; a trigger can be anything that increases your dog’s arousal or excitement. For example, rowdy play can cause some dogs to go over threshold!
Proximity or how close a dog is to the trigger. In most cases, closer is more difficult. But with some dogs, something farther away can actually be more difficult. For example,  something farther away may be less identifiable (and so more scary).
Frequency (how often the trigger happens). If a dog faces the same trigger repeatedly, especially in a short period, he may react more strongly.
The intensity of the trigger. For example, if the trigger is a sound, how loud it is or how long it lasts might affect the dog’s reaction.
Being hungry, thirsty, tired, or in pain, can all impact a dog’s threshold.
Accumulated stress can also affect a dog’s threshold. For example, if your dog has a fun but stressful weekend at an agility trial, he may go over threshold more quickly if spooked by a loud sound on Monday morning. (It may take several days for his stress hormones to return to normal, so accumulated stress responses are not always easy to trace.)

4. You can help your dog stay under threshold. To help your dog stay under threshold, you can learn what types of things might be triggers for your dog. Anything that creates stress, high arousal or overexcitement is a possible trigger. Identify both positive stressors (like rowdy play, chasing toys or hunting) and negative stressors (like scary dogs, strangers, or loud noises).

In addition, learn your dog’s body language, and what signals precede your dog’s going over threshold. For some dogs, you may notice tension, some may become more excited, and some may try to move away or start sniffing the ground. Most dogs take treats more roughly when they are getting close to threshold.

Ruthanna Levy

Fortunately, his owner/trainer has trained him (first, in a zero-stress environment, and then in incrementally more stressful situations) to respond to her cues. Here, she asks him to lie down and put his head down, giving him something to focus on, to help him stay in a thinking and learning state rather than reactive one.

Stay focused on your dog. Any time you are in the presence of your dog’s triggers, pay attention so you will notice if your dog’s behavior or energy level shifts or you see stress signals.

If you notice your dog’s arousal increasing, take action; don’t wait for him to go over threshold. If your dog is getting close to threshold, you can:

Create distance between your dog and the trigger.
Do focus exercises to bring your dog into a thinking state.
If necessary, leave the situation altogether.

Training and behavior modification are key tools when it comes to helping your dog stay under threshold. Over time, training can change a dog’s threshold levels around certain triggers. Plus, when you are around a trigger, actively training can help keep your dog focused and in a less reactive state.

Should you work your dog close to threshold? If you are working with your dog on a particular behavioral challenge, you may purposely expose your dog to certain triggers. Ideally, you will find that balance of exposing your dog enough that he or she builds confidence and makes progress, but not so much that it causes undue stress.

Very important note: If you are working on fear or reactivity, going over threshold frequently will slow your dog’s progress. If you see little or no improvement in a problem area, consider that you may be working your dog too close to threshold, or over threshold.

5. If your dog goes over threshold, take action. Let’s face it: We cannot control everything that happens in our lives or our dog’s lives. As much as we may try to help our dog stay under threshold, there may be times that he or she steps over and behaves badly. What can you do in that moment?

Get your dog out of the situation immediately. This is not a time for training, learning, or fixing problems.
Take note of all of the factors that led to your dog going over threshold.
Make a plan for the next time you are in that situation, so that you can prevent it from happening again if at all possible.

Understanding the concept of thresholds can help in everyday learning situations for all of our dogs. Keeping a dog under threshold can promote an optimum learning state, which can make training happen faster and with less stress. For dogs with behavior challenges such as fear and reactivity, understanding the concept of thresholds and making an effort to keep the dog under threshold while you work through challenges can make a huge difference in progress and success. Understanding thresholds gives you an advantage when it comes to training and to helping your puppy or dog be calm and confident.

Mardi Richmond, MA, CPDT-KA, is a writer and trainer living in Santa Cruz, California with her partner and a wonderful heeler-mix named Chance.

Comments (6)

My 2 1/2 yr old is protective. She also has fear and anxiety issues. Although very affectionate to known family/friends, dogs, cats. The triggers are obvious most of the time I.e loud noise, doorbells ringing, usually bigger dogs. She's only 18 lbs.
One behavior that warrants attention is her barking and more importantly jumping on people entering my home. She has yet to bite anyone but she gets so stressed out its possible she may eventually.

Posted by: Andrew | July 11, 2014 3:02 PM    Report this comment

I used to spend half my time in Manhattan, and I carefully socialized my puppy to every aspect of the environment and people. He was completely fearless and enjoyed being around all the other dogs and people for 2 years, then suddenly refused to leave the elevator in the apartment building. I tried coaxing with treats (he is VERY food-motivated), tossing a toy, etc. He was shaking. Obviously he had to go out, so we carried him out to do his business. He gradually got somewhat better, and now he's fine on sidewalks and in city parks, but he is still afraid to cross the avenues. It's not always a matter of inadequate socialization, but I have no idea what it was.

Posted by: Deborah B | April 13, 2013 12:46 PM    Report this comment

Artesia, I applaud your basic instinct to comfort your dog. Contrary to popular belief, you can NOT reinforce your dog's fear by comforting them. Done right, comforting your dog can actually help. What is comforting right? Calmly petting, calmly talking to your dog, calmly sitting down next to your dog...sense a theme? Done right it can really make a difference.

My dog has difficulty with new people and dogs due to fear/low confidence. After working with him on this for a couple years I felt he had made enough progress to join some friends at a community holiday event. As we were leaving the event the crowd became more than he could handle. He was showing signs of stress/anxiety/panic. In the time I have had him he has never bitten, but IF there was ever a risk of him biting out of panic, this would have been one those over threshold leading to a panic bit situations.

So, I picked him up and carried him out of the area. The difference AFTER being picked up was remarkable. He went from stressed and over threshold, to relaxed and under threshold. Once we were away from the crowds, he was back down on his own paws. No where in there did I use a panic sounding voice, I didn't go on and on about "oh its ok, its ok". I just picked him, held him and carried him out of a situation he wasn't able to handle.

This wasn't the first, nor the last I have helped him by picking up or otherwise comforting him in a stressful situation.

The biggest risk, and it would irresponsible to not mention it, is NOT that you are reinforcing the fear by picking up your dog. Rather your dog NOT finding it comforting or providing security in a scary situation and as a result struggles to get out of your arms, you losing your hold, and your dog falling several feet and is seriously injured. IF your dog doesn't find being picked up comforting, don't do it.

But, IF (if is a BIG qualifier here) your dog has shown that this is something that helps, calms them down, etc. It can be a positive thing for your dog and it won't reinforce their fear. But should be used carefully and selectively for safety reasons.

Posted by: matthew | April 4, 2013 10:22 PM    Report this comment

Shea - not sure if you got an answer to your question somewhere else but this sounds like a case of resource guarding ie. owner guarding. I would HIGHLY suggest contacting an experienced trainer in your area and getting the issue resolved. You shouldn't have to live in fear in your own home and neither should Penny.

Artesia- This sounds similar to how dogs behave when there is a lack of socialization to a certain environment. By picking the dog up and sweetly comforting her you are actually encouraging the fearful behaviors she is displaying. I know that as a mother to a fearful dog it feels natural to pick them up, hold the close and tell them everything is going to be alright but it actually can make the problem worse. I would suggest, and this article is a great example, keeping her under her threshold not by picking her up and walking back home (although I can see why you thought that). Instead, practice just getting her used to being on the front porch. Feed her treats out front, play a game of tug, practice training or just sit and watch the outdoor while enjoying a nice petting or brushing. As long as she is under her threshold she should be relaxed and happy with this. Once she is good her do the same thing on the sidewalk just in front of the house or apartment. Spend a little time out there a couple times a day and then go back inside. When she is comfortable with that go a little farther on the sidewalk (maybe just as far as in front of the neighbors house). All the while you are introducing the city environment little by little under her threshold. If this doesn't quite make sense to you or you try it and don't see any change I recommend contacting a trainer in you area. This is a very simple training plan and although it might take a lot of time for the dog depending on her level of fear or anxiety it is easy to work with.

Good luck to you both!

Posted by: Carolyn M | April 3, 2013 1:06 AM    Report this comment

Our Dog Penny is 9 years old. Over the past few years Penny (a Vizsla) decided to become way over protected of my wife. ANY time I come close to my wife, Penny begins growling and showing her teeth to me. Even when my wife tries to get Penny to stop, Penny keeps on growing till I leave. Oviously, Penny feels threatened by me, but I have NEVER hit her or have been mean to her in any way. I call it the "Sybil" Reaction...Sound funny but I get scared of Penny when she gets like this and it happens Everyday inside the house.
When we are outside, Penny is Fun, loving, playful with both me and my wife. She is a Pleasure. Once inside the once nice playful dog is now a animal wanting to rip my throat out. At least that how I feel.
What do you think?

Posted by: To Shea | March 18, 2013 7:52 PM    Report this comment

My dog doesn't like to walk outside in the City where we live. I carry her and she walks home, quickly. Sometimes when we start out and I'm carrying her she shakes. I talk to her and try to reassure her, but it doesn't seem to calm her fears. Really not sure how to handle this type of situation.
If I understand the article correctly, I'm thinking that I should turn around and take her home when she shakes. Would this be advisable?

Posted by: Artesia A | March 18, 2013 6:27 PM    Report this comment

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