In my last entry, I mentioned thresholds in passing, and M.T. asked how you determine what your dog’s threshold is. I responded, but I’m not sure I really answered her question very well, so let’s do that today! (I also realized that I use a fair amount of jargon in this blog- not on purpose, mind you, but I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff, so it’s rather ingrained at this point. So, if I ever gloss over a concept and you’d like to know more, please comment and I’ll try to make a post covering it in more depth.)
Keeping dogs sub-threshold in my reactive dog class. Photo is by the amazing, wonderful, talented, absolutely fabulous (and beautiful) Robin Tinay Sallie.
The term “threshold” can have a variety of uses, encompassing everything from the threshold of a house to pain perception to the point at which a dog becomes reactive or aggressive, but when you get right down to it, they all refer to the same concept: a clearly delineated point at which something changes. Just as going through a doorway makes it obvious that you are moving from outside to inside, crossing the stress threshold is a signal that your dog cannot handle any more right now. Simply stated, it is the line between desirable and undesirable behavior.
All dogs have a threshold. Some dogs, like Maisy, have relatively low thresholds- their behavior becomes undesirable fairly quickly in the face of stress. Other dogs have high thresholds, and if you’re lucky, they’ll never experience enough stress to cross the line.
Dogs also vary in their response to crossing threshold. Some shut down and withdraw into themselves, and may avoid the stressful object or situation that pushed them beyond their capacity to cope. Many people fail to recognize this for what it is, thinking their dog is simply uninterested or aloof. Other dogs “may posture by screaming, lunging, snapping, and generally making a huge display of their anxiety and arousal.” These are the dogs we call reactive- like Maisy. (Quote taken from page 44 of Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog by Leslie McDevitt.)
The reason it is so important to recognize if your dog has crossed her threshold is because once she has, she is too stressed to learn. Going over threshold causes the dog’s fight or flight reflex to activate in the brain, which diverts energy away from everything not directly related to survival… like learning. Since so much of modifying a reactive dog’s behavior involves learning in some manner, whether it’s classically or operantly, you need to keep your dog sub-threshold.
The tricky thing about thresholds is that they are “fluid and depend on context” (page 48, Control Unleashed). That is, they can change from hour to hour, and many factors can influence where the threshold is: location, the number or types of people or dogs present, physical considerations, events that happened yesterday, hormones, past history or associations- the variables are really infinite! What all of this really means is that you can’t simply say, “I need to keep my dog at least 10 feet away from large, black dogs (or balloons, or people wearing hats, or…).” That may be a good general rule, but today your dog might be able to handle only 5 feet, while tomorrow she might need 15, or more.
Dog owners, and especially those who have reactive dogs, need to learn how to assess their dogs continually, and be able to respond to their dog’s changing needs in order to keep their dog sub-threshold. As Leslie says on page 44 of Control Unleashed, “learning to gauge your dog’s threshold and work under it, or help him settle after he crosses it, is vital.”
So how do you gauge your dog’s threshold? Largely through observation, which, incidentally, can only be done if you are actively paying attention to your dog. When I need to focus on something else, such as listening to an instructor, I keep Maisy in my peripheral vision so that I can monitor her emotional state. I keep an eye on four major things: Maisy’s overall body language, her automatic reflexes, the environment, and Maisy’s response to the environment.
Every reactive dog owner would do well to learn as much about body language as they can. I highly recommend Sarah Kalnajs' DVD, The Language of Dogs, but there are lots of resources out there. Find one, study it, and then go sit in the dog park (without your dog), and just watch. And while you’re at it… start watching your dog, too. What does she look like when you’re playing together? When she’s eating? Right before she reacts? Learn how she holds her ears and tails during a wide variety of emotions. Likewise, watch your dog’s automatic reflexes. I’m talking about really basic things like breathing and heart rate. Learn your dog’s body.
I also pay attention to the environment and Maisy’s response to it. You’re watching for two things. First, you want to watch for triggers and patterns. Notice which things cause your dog to go over threshold. Do some of them happen only in the presence of others? You want to be able to predict what will cause your dog to react, without anticipating a reaction- heaven knows that my behavior can cause or prevent a reaction in Maisy. But being able to predict a reaction allows you to adjust your distance or the intensity so that you can work sub-threshold instead of being surprised by a reaction!
As your training goes on, though, you will find that your dog’s threshold is changing. She should be able to keep it together better, and longer, in the face of former triggers. So you also want to be watching your dog’s responses to the environment in order to assess her progress. Since there will inevitably be set-backs, you want to be able celebrate the small successes where you find them.
For those of you who are lucky enough to have a “normal” dog, it’s still good to learn your dog’s body, and watch how she responds to the environment. Remember, all dogs have a threshold, and your best chance to never have the experience of seeing your dog cross hers is to be there for her when she needs you most. A wise dog owner will recognize early signs of stress and help the dog become more comfortable, whether she’s reactive or not.