“Threshold” is kind of a buzzword in the dog training world these days. There are times with our dogs when things are just too much. They can get overwhelmed and all of our training work with them seems to fall apart. And there are other times when there just isn’t enough. Our dogs just don’t find enough to motivate them to stay engaged with us. The point at which a dog crosses over from engaged to “too much” or “not enough” could be called a “Threshold.”
The children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a great example of what we often mean by “threshold” in talking about our dogs. In the story, Goldilocks encounters different situations where she has to sample what is “too hot or too cold”, “too big or too small”, “too hard or too soft” in order to find what is “just right.” In each case, Goldilocks must determine what is too much for her and what is not enough in order to find the right amount.
It is a balancing act finding what is “just right” to make our dogs successful in a given situation. It can be difficult to find that success threshold whether it is keeping your dog from reacting to a stranger walking toward you or barking defensively at an overly curious dog. The difficulty with reactivity thresholds is that my dog will go into “fight or flight” mode and I might not be able to communicate with my dog to ask for a trained behaviour. There are a number of great management and training approaches to dealing with reactivity thresholds but is that the end of the threshold story?
Threshold after threshold after threshold
There is a point beyond which a given dog will cross that “fight or flight” threshold when we talk about reactivity. But what about other kinds of situations? Is there a “Distraction Threshold”? What about a “Sniffing Threshold”? A “Boredom Threshold”? Could there even be a “Persuasion Threshold”? We could characterize many of our dogs behaviours in terms of thresholds. Whether those behaviours occur when my dog is over threshold or under threshold depends, in large part, on how I am defining the threshold and the behaviours I want or don’t want.
Let’s look at my dog’s reactivity to strangers. When approached by strangers my dog might bark and strain at her leash. It would be fair to say that she is feeling fearful or anxious and is reacting this way in order to get the stranger to stop approaching. As her owner, I could approach this from two very different perspectives. On the one hand I could seek to get rid of her barking and straining behaviours – and that doesn’t require that I deal with her fear or anxiety at all. It’s simple behaviour modification. The other approach would be to generate strategies to alleviate her fear and anxiety and take away the reason for her barking and straining behaviour.
While I can choose from two very different approaches to responding to my dog’s behaviour, the threshold in each case remains the same. When I observe my dog walking calmly with me, she is below that reaction threshold and when she is barking and straining, she is clearly over it. It’s a matter of knowing what the threshold we are looking for is and watching our dog to see what is happening.
Looking but not seeing
Perhaps the trickiest part of working with thresholds is being clear about what we are looking for in the first place. As humans we can be optimistic or pessimistic. It’s easy enough for us to decide what a threshold for a behaviour looks like and then find excuses to decide that, although it’s close, that particular instance is acceptable. In order for thresholds to mean anything, we have to give them the authority to guide our actions.
One place I see this all of the time is in dog agility. Many competitors like to have their dogs wait at the start line until they tell the dog they can go. There couldn’t be an easier threshold to spot than that one. Did handler say “go”? That’s the threshold. If the dog leaves before the signal – too soon. If the handler has to tell them to again – too late. Or they leave right on time – just right. But all to often the handler will excuse variations in behaviour. “Too soon” wasn’t all that far off so just let it go. The same with “too late.” We’re watching for the threshold but we choose not to see what’s right in front of us.
And what does the dog make of this? In a situation like a start line in agility, missing that threshold would not cause significant emotional fallout and is probably not a big deal. Just more training to show the dog what is expected will restore their confidence in the training process. But in the case of a fearful dog, the situation is quite different. If we fail to see the threshold there, the dog is subjected to unnecessary anxiety and repeats behaviours we would rather they didn’t do and that can have long term negative results. All too often, the owner will blame the dog when they should have seen the threshold approaching and taken steps to keep the dog from crossing over and reacting in the first place.
Not always negative
Although dog people often talk about thresholds in terms of keeping the dog under thresholds (usually in regards to making sure they are not over-aroused or over-stressed) there might be situations in which we want to keep our dogs over a different kind of threshold. When I want to train my dog, the one thing that I require is her attention. If I don’t have that, we’re not going to be able to communicate. In order get and keep my dogs attention, I’m going to have to find a way to keep her interested and engaged with me. There are lots of ways to do that – play with a toy, offer her food, give her physical affection, etc. But whatever I use, I have to provide enough of it to keep her interested. Let’s call it a “Persuasion Threshold.” If she is over that threshold, she’s interested and engaged. If she is under it, she’s lost interest and would rather do something else.
When I first learned the process of Mark & Reward training, one key lesson was that the most important aspect of the training is to keep the dog interested. If my dog becomes fatigued, bored, or would prefer to be doing something else, her willingness to learn is probably not where it should be. Forcing her to continue would only give her a reason to dislike training more. No one likes being forced to do something they don’t want to be doing. If I monitor my dog during training and make sure she stays above that “Persuasion Threshold”, I know she’s happy and open to learning whatever I’m teaching her.
If you’re not watching, you will miss it.
The key element of thresholds is being aware of them and being watchful enough to notice when your dog’s moods shift. Our dogs don’t talk like humans do. They express themselves through body language and their actions. A dog that doesn’t want to look at you and seems more interested in sniffing is telling you that they don’t want to be doing what you are doing. But there are more subtle signals that will tell you it’s time to adjust. A slow response, a momentary delay before responding, interest in a toy or other object might all be signs that your dog is bored or frustrated with the activity.
The same is true with situations where your dog might be uncomfortable. A reluctance to move toward something, the alert set of their ears, nervous eyes, furtive movements, and they way the dog is carrying their tail can all be signs that your dog is approaching an anxiety or fear threshold. It can be critical to recognize and respond to these signs to keep a reactive dog under that threshold so they don’t feel they need to lash out.
Whatever you decide that a particular threshold is, the important thing to remember that it’s not simply black and white, over or under. There are always early warning signs. The more attentive I am to what my dog is telling me, the better I can respond to what she needs. Sometimes I need to keep her over that “Persuasion Threshold” by playing a game or making the training easier. Other times I might need to move my dog away from something she fears or that makes her nervous to keep her under her fear or reactivity threshold.
As my dog’s guardian, I need to be aware of her various thresholds. I also need to be attentive to what she is telling me about those thresholds. And that can be complicated. There are going to be times that I have to put my own wishes aside and pay attention to what my dog needs. Whether it is a fear threshold or a persuasion threshold, I can’t expect my dog to just “suck it up” and deal with it because I said so. As the human, it should be up to me to do my best to help my dog.
Using thresholds is an interesting way to look at working with my dogs but it is a perspective that has made training and living with my dogs a lot easier. Things just work better when things are easy for everyone – not too much, not too little, but just right.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Be sure to check out our Canine Nation ebooks in the Canine Nation store and Dogwise. Join our conversation on Facebook in the Canine Nation Forum!
The NEW Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
Available from Dogwise!
Photo credits –
Anxious – Alvaro copyright 2007 from Flickr
Bark – jamelah e. copyright 2008 from Flickr
Engaged – bullcitydogs copyright 2009 from Flickr
Recent Eric Brad CPDT-KA Articles:
- The Dog That Changed My Life
- Keeping Your Dog Informed
- Teaching Your Dog to Not-Behave
- The Simple Complexity of Dog Training
- What The Dog Wants