Understanding Thresholds

December 31, 2018

Thresholds in dog training. What are they? How are they established? Why are they so important?


Think of something that you are really, really afraid of. For me, it’s heights… Yes, I'm short... I see the humor, lol!


Let's say I am standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

For me, the edge would be anything closer than 100 hundred feet..

I'm in complete control, no one is behind me or beside me and I can choose to move in any direction based on how I'm feeling.  I am able to maintain my personal threshold.


Now, let's add a crowd that starts to form behind me, one person at a time.

Each person that takes their place behind, beside, anywhere near me… limits my ability to maintain my personal threshold.

With each additional person, my options decrease and my anxiety increases.


What about spiders, snakes or beetles.  These are common triggers for many people.  Maintaining threshold in the case of arachnophobia or other physical phobias, is achieved maintaining by distance.

What about sounds? One of my dog's, my Border Collie Banjo, is sensitive to my cockatoos scream.

His sensitivity was severe to the point of leaving the area when my cockatoo (Amigo) made any noise whatsoever.  I used thresholds to begin positive associations and change neural pathways to the point where my dog is absolutely fine with Amigo’s scream.


Threshold brakes can happen in many ways and there are just as many ways to decrease anxiety as there are triggers.


Now let's think about the feelings associated with fear.  Most of us at some point in our lives have experienced a fear that everyone can relate to. Fear of drowning, however realistic or imagined, it is terrifying and memorable.

I remember two such incidents myself, being tossed into the deep end of a swimming pool on vacation before I knew how to swim, and the second one, being locked into my school locker as a joke on my birthday. I’m claustrophobic.


Both of these incidents caused such severe panic that even writing about them ignites a visceral response.

I can feel my heart rate quickening, my stomach tightening, and each of these incidents happened over 50 years ago for me.


How does this apply to your dog? We now know, based on brain imaging and current scientific studies, that your dog experiences events to a much more heightened degree than we do.

For instance, there is a  study showing the change in brain chemistry when an owner, who has been absent for a very short amount of time, re-enters the environment. The intensity of the feelings your dog experiences are comparable to the feelings that we humans have when we first fall in love.


Take a moment, a deep breath and just realize what that last sentence says about your dog….


 Finally, we are starting to understand how they perceive our world and the difficulties they must experience while trying to navigate the many situations that we create for them.


Thresholds impact so many training / behavior challenges. Everything from barking, jumping up and resource guarding, to separation anxiety and perceived aggression.


There is also a huge misconception as to the proper protocol in addressing any of these challenges.  We are a society, looking for quick fixes. We want to correct behavior challenges and unfortunately, often spend far too little time trying to understand the origin of the behavior and the feelings that created the symptoms (barking, lunging, pulling, growling, jumping up….the list goes on),  that we are desperately trying to resolve.


Establishing, maintaining and working below threshold is imperative when trying to resolve a challenge where anxiety / fear is the source.


If your dog is afraid of other dogs, particularly on a leash, think of the thresholds at play.

The leash for example, takes me back to standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon and having my ability to retreat, inhibited by people beginning to surrounding me.  Your dog's leash, inhibits his or her ability to move away from what frightens them.


You can also think of the arachnophobia with leash reactivity. How far is the trigger from your dog?  For some dogs, the trigger & required established thresholds is farther than for other dogs.


Thresholds are very individual.

It is our job to watch our dogs extremely carefully to see what their individual threshold is to each of the trigger responses that we are trying to help them overcome.


Once established, we must work below that threshold point in order to establish a positive association, one that your dog can absorb because the level of anxiety has not reached a “flooding” state.


I often have clients ask the “what if” questions regarding explosive behavior on a walk for example. Explosions happen when we reduce the dog's ability to escape a situation that causes them anxiety/ fear.


In order to continue to move forward, training sessions must be controlled, structured and variables must be maintained.This means that on a walk, where we have triggers moving around the environment that we cannot control, is not the best ‘classroom’ to start helping to change neural pathways for your dog.


When seeking training advice with respect to leash reactivity, separation anxiety, dog/dog or dog/human reactivity as well as a multitude of other threshold based behavior modification plans, please be an advocate for your dog.We, in the dog loving world, sometimes spend far to much time worrying about anthropomorphizing a dog and far too little time realizing and acknowledging how similar they really are to us. I encourage you TO compare your dogs responses to triggers to things you have experienced in your own lives. Really consider how much benefit you would gain from increasing your distance & ability to retreat.


Our dogs are no longer an enigma.  Everyday, the science is proving what many of us already knew.


They are more like us than unlike us.



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