If your dog is exhibiting reactive behaviors, the success of a behavior modification program relies heavily on your ability to work with your dog when they are calm. And the best way to keep your dog calm enough to be able to listen to you and learn is to stay under threshold.
So this blog post is dedicated to defining what a threshold means in the world of dog training and how to identify when your dog is approaching their threshold.
What is a “threshold” in the world of dog training?
In the world of dog behavior, the term “threshold” refers to how close or intense a trigger has to be before a dog exhibits signs of stress or reactive behaviors. Essentially, it is the point where a trigger causes a dog’s emotional state to cross the threshold into a state of reactivity.
Dogs can have different thresholds with different triggers. And triggers can be anything that cause an overreaction for that dog, such as other dogs, squirrels, rabbits, strange people, loud noises, and more.
Dogs can be under threshold, at threshold, or over a behavioral threshold.
A dog who is under threshold may be aware that the trigger is present, but the trigger is far enough away or quiet enough that the dog does not exhibit any signs of stress. If you need to brush up on your knowledge of dog stress signals, please head over to our blog post all about stress signals in dogs.
Dogs who are under threshold are still calm and relaxed and able to attend to their handler. A dog under threshold can still take treats and respond to trained commands.
When dogs are at threshold, they begin to show more awareness of the trigger. You may start to see some early stress signals.
Dogs who are over threshold show signs of fear and anxiety towards the trigger. They may also be starting to demonstrate reactive behaviors, such as barking or lunging. Dogs who are over threshold will have a hard time settling down and responding to trained commands.
A dog who is over threshold may be tense, stop taking treats, barking, growling, lunging, whining, staring, or more.
It is nearly impossible to train a dog who is over threshold via positive reinforcement. Just as you can’t have a productive conversation to resolve conflict with someone who is panicking, yelling, screaming, or otherwise in emotional distress. Conflict is best resolved during a calm conversation. Similarly, your dog will learn positive behaviors best when they are not over-aroused and anxious.
For some more good explanations of how a concept of a threshold works for dogs, the following posts have some great information.
Finding Your Dog’s Threshold
Finding your dog’s threshold(s) takes time and some great observational skills. Most dog owners can easily distinguish between when their dog is quiet vs. when they begin lunging, barking, growling, pulling, and whining. But the best behavior modification occurs when you can identify the earlier signs that your dog is approaching their threshold.
Thresholds can be a physical distance from a trigger or a length of time your dog can tolerate exposure to a trigger. And thresholds often vary with the intensity of the trigger. We’ll talk about this in more detail later on in this post.
Because of all of these variations, it may be helpful to think of your dog’s threshold(s) as a spectrum rather than a line they are crossing over.
Jenna at the Dog Liason does a great job of explaining this on YouTube.
In order to identify when your dog is approaching their threshold, it is very important that you can identify signs of stress in dogs. For detailed information, please refer to our dog stress signals post. But often the earliest stress signals I see in dogs are a stiff/tense body, staring, and licking lips.
Staring is different than looking. A calm and relaxed dog often looks at another dog or a squirrel or other stimulus and then looks away. They are gathering information about the environment, but are not stressed or concerned.
A dog who is staring has stiff body language and is not looking away from the trigger. Just like children are trained not to stare at other people, you should train your dog not to stare.
If you are working on counter-conditioning your dog from a trigger, you should reward your dog as soon as they look at a trigger. But if your dog is staring, you need to get more distance between your dog and the trigger to prevent your dog from going further over threshold.
While ideally, we would work to find our dog’s thresholds in a training environment where the trigger is controlled (i.e. another calm dog that is not moving towards you, a domestic rabbit safely contained in a cage, or a stranger that has been coached in how to train with reactive dogs), many of us (myself included) discover our dogs’ thresholds by inadvertently taking our dogs over threshold.
So if you are out and about and notice your dog staring, one of the best ways to get more distance between your dog and a trigger when out walking is to train and use an emergency U-turn or “about-face”.
You can use an “about-face” to get as much distance as you need to help your dog relax. Once your dog is back under threshold -not staring, no stress signals, and calmly attending to you – then you can stop moving away from the trigger and reward your dog for calmly attending to you.
You may end up finding your dog’s threshold through trial and error. But ideally, you should try and set up a scenario that will allow you to test this and really observe your dog.
Setting Up Scenarios to Help You Identify Your Dog’s Thresholds
Let’s take a dog who exhibits reactive behaviors when they see another dog. You could have a friend come over with their dog or you can work outside of a dog park. If you choose to train near a dog park, don’t practice in the parking lot, but pick an area where dogs won’t come walking past yet you can still see other dogs.
If you can enlist someone to record you working with your dog, even better. You can review the video afterward and watch for stress signals from your dog. You can also evaluate yourself and how well you did on identifying stress and timing treat rewards during that training session.
When setting up a training session, it is important to start slow and start under threshold.
For example, if your dog starts exhibiting reactive behaviors as soon as you get out of the car, start training inside the car. If the parking lot is too triggering, park further down the street.
If your dog can stay relaxed as you walk towards the dog park, simply observe them. Once you notice tension and staring stop there. That’s your threshold. Then back up a few steps so your dog is below threshold. (Remember, you can use your “about-face” skills to back up and get distance if you need it.)
Watch your dog’s body language as you turn away until they are calm, relaxed, and attentive to you again. Again, remember that the best desensitization, counter-conditioning, and behavior modification can occur when your dog is under threshold.
We will talk more about desensitization and counterconditioning later, but for now, the goal is to start observing the signals that your dog gives when approaching threshold.
Below is another video from Dog Liason. In the video, she reviews a video from Zak George. I don’t know much about Zak George as a dog trainer, but what I like about this video is two-fold.
- It shows you how much information you can get from recording a training session and analyzing how you responded to your dog’s signals in the moment.
- It shows several potential pitfalls that commonly occur when training a dog that has fear and anxiety and how easy it is to push your dog past thresholds.
Thresholds Can Change
Please be aware that your dog’s threshold to any trigger may change from day to day. And as we discussed above, the intensity of a trigger and the duration of exposure to a trigger can greatly affect the distance from a trigger at which a dog approaches threshold.
For a dog who reacts towards other dogs, not all dogs will be as intensely triggering. For example, a dog’s threshold is likely very different towards different sizes of dogs, or towards energetic vs relaxed dogs, or towards dogs who stare back vs. dogs who ignore them.
And you also need to be aware that your dog’s mood can change from day to day, just like yours. Most days you might not say anything to someone who is chewing loudly while sitting too closely to you. But if you are having a bad day and are already stressed about something else, you might snap at someone and ask them to please chew with their mouth closed if they are going to eat next to you.
Your dog may be more reactive on some days than others. And this is why it is important to learn your dog’s cues and signals that identify when they are approaching threshold. Your dog’s threshold will vary from day to day.
There is also a term called “trigger stacking” that can greatly affect your dog’s threshold to various triggers.
To understand trigger stacking, you need to understand that your dog’s cortisol levels are linked with their reactivity. Cortisol is released in response to stress. So each time your dog is triggered, their cortisol level goes up. As their cortisol level goes up, their threshold typically decreases. Meaning that they will react or act stressed sooner than they normally would if they were relaxed and had low cortisol levels.
So the more triggers your dog encounters, the lower the threshold for reactive behavior becomes. And if your dog has an episode of reactivity, they will likely be more hypervigilant for the next trigger.
For example, a dog who reacts to other dogs may do just fine passing a single dog on the sidewalk. But if it is busy out, the next dog they pass may be a little harder. And the next one is even more so.
Then if that dog has a reactive episode (goes over threshold) towards a dog because their handler has not noticed that their threshold is lowering (or because of an event out of the handler’s control), the dog’s threshold could lower to the point that they might not be able to calmly tolerate even seeing another dog.
If you notice trigger stacking in your dog, give your dog a break. Some dogs require a couple of calm days after they are triggered into reactive behavior to allow cortisol levels to decrease before they are ready to head back out on the sidewalks or trails and risk encountering another dog again.
This YouTube video from Atta Pup! explains trigger stacking nicely.
Overall, please be aware and understand that the threshold for your dog’s reactive behavior will always be in a state of flux. Your goal with behavior modification is to raise the threshold for reactive behavior (increase your dog’s tolerance towards triggers) through desensitization and counter-conditioning. But there will be setbacks and periods of regression, especially if your dog encounters multiple triggers in a short period of time.
The main goal of this post is to help you learn to identify when your dog is nearing their threshold so that regardless of where their threshold is on any given day you can be ready to help your dog get more space from triggers when they need it. Knowing when and how to intervene for your dog can make a huge difference.
I haven’t written a blog post on counter-conditioning and desensitizing dogs yet, so if you have already trained your about-face and feel comfortable watching for stress signals that indicate your dog is approaching their threshold(s) and are ready for the next step, head over to the CARE for Reactive Dogs website. That website is an amazing resource for treating reactive dogs.
And if you want to read more about stopping your dog’s stare and creating space from triggers while out walking and hiking, check out the two posts below.
If you have any questions, thoughts, or recommendations for more good resources for reactive dogs, leave a comment below.
And as always,