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Understanding thresholds is key to helping reactive dogs.
Nothing helps you be successful at helping your reactive dog as much as careful observation and really, really getting to know your dog.
And honestly, there's no better way to enjoy life together with our dogs than when we pay attention and are truly present with them. (It's a pretty good bet your dog is already paying attention to your every move and feeling!)
As a certified professional dog trainer, there is nothing I love more than working with dog owners who really know their dog. If you can predict your dog's reactive behavior with accuracy, you are far more equipped to set up and navigate environments in a way that allows your dog to stay comfortable, under threshold, and learning.
What is a threshold?
In managing dog reactivity, the term "threshold" refers to the distance or intensity at which a reactive dog can experience or be near a trigger without actually being triggered.
A reactive dog is "under threshold" when his or her brain is calm enough to think, learn, and make actual choices. This is crucial because the more reactive dogs can experience calm behavior and positive experiences around triggers, the easier it becomes for them to do so in the future.
A reactive dog is "over threshold” when he or she is in the "red zone" and no longer thinking consciously but rather reacting from a purely emotional space. It's important to remember that even though a reactive dog may be "under threshold" in one situation, that dog may not be in another. Every dog may have a different threshold depending on the environment, context, and triggers involved.
Give me an example
A dog who is reactive to other dogs on leash may be able to walk calmly past another dog if there's enough distance between them. But put that same dog in a small room with another dog and he/she may be over threshold before even being aware of the other dog's presence. This is why it's crucial to know your dog and your dog's specific triggers, as well as understanding how your dog's threshold may change in different situations.
Another thing important to remember in dog training is that a dog's threshold is not static.
It can change based on numerous factors such as how well-rested the dog is, what time of day it is, how recently the dog has eaten, and whether the dog is sick or in pain. It also fluctuates with the dog's age, training, and overall emotional state. It's important to keep track of these factors and adjust your dog training accordingly.
What does being "under threshold" look like for a reactive dog?
When a reactive dog is under threshold, he or she may show some signs of stress but should be able to stay relaxed and focused on you. Breathing should be normal, your dog's tongue should not be hanging out, and muscles should not be tense.
You should be able to get your dog's attention relatively easily, and your pup should be able to take treats calmly. Your dog may look away from the trigger, but shouldn't be trying to move away from it or lunge toward it.
If you notice any signs of tension or discomfort, it's important to take a step back and increase the distance from the trigger. Remember, always keep an eye on your dog's body language and adjust accordingly to keep your dog under threshold.
What does "over threshold" look like for a reactive dog?
A reactive dog over threshold is in fight or flight mode. His or her brain is surging with adrenaline and cortisol - not only incapable of making “good” choices, but incapable of making choices at all. In this state, a dog quite literally cannot learn - especially true of a very reactive dog.
When dogs are over threshold, we are not in a space to be training, and should instead focus on removing our dog from the situation, and getting more distance. It's important to note that a dog who is over threshold may not be able to eat or take treats. In this case, the best thing you can do is try to calm your dog down and move away from the trigger as quickly as possible.
Over threshold body language and reactive behavior may look like:
- Tongue flicking
- Lip licking
- Whale eye
- Hackles up
- Body stiffening
Some dogs will show all of these signs, while others only a few. It's important to know your dog's specific body language and signs of reactivity so you can identify when he or she is over threshold and take appropriate action.
How to use management to set your reactive dog up to stay under threshold
Keeping your dog under threshold is the key to improving your dog's reactive behavior, and a good management plan is a big part of this (as we talked about in the guide on management for trigger situations).
Management means taking steps to control the environment and prevent your dog from being triggered. This can include using tools like a leash, harness, muzzle, or a physical barrier to keep your dog at a safe distance from triggers. It also involves setting up situations in which your dog is likely to stay under threshold, such as avoiding certain trigger areas or using counterconditioning techniques.
Remember, management alone is not a permanent solution for reactive behavior, but it can be an important part of a comprehensive training plan. It's also crucial to continue working on desensitization and counterconditioning techniques to address the root cause of your dog's reactivity.
The role of distance in your dog's threshold & learning
As you work with your dog under threshold, you’ll find that your pup's threshold will expand to be more comfortable in more situations. Whereas previously you may have had to work at 20+ feet away from the trigger, with time you’ll be able to get within 15, 10, 5 feet of your dog's triggers. Remember to work at a pace that is comfortable for your dog, and always be ready to increase the distance if needed.
Distance plays a crucial role in your dog's threshold training because it allows your dog to feel safe and in control. As you gradually decrease the distance between your dog and their triggers, your dog will learn that these triggers are not as scary or threatening as they once perceived.
The fewer negative experiences, the faster the learning
Keep in mind that the fewer negative experiences your dog has in proximity to a trigger (ie reactions), the faster he or she will learn that maybe those other dogs (or children, cats, bicycles, skateboards…) aren’t so bad after all.
Remember, your goal is not to get as close as possible to the trigger, but rather to work at a distance where your dog can focus on you and is making choices (rather than reacting). With patience, consistency, and proper management, your dog's threshold can improve and reactive behavior can be addressed.
What else impacts your dog's comfortable threshold?
There is more involved in a dog’s threshold than simply distance. Let’s consider my reactive dog, Muchacho, and his degree of reaction to other dogs. For Mooch, distance is certainly a factor.
But what else beyond distance from other dogs affects your dog's threshold?
Give me an example (or three)...
- In Muchacho's case, the size of the dog also matters. Bigger dogs = scarier.
- The direction the dog is moving: away from him isn’t so bad, directly toward him isn’t so good.
- The way the dog is moving: a slow-moving, super neutral dog is a lot easier to deal with than a prancy young dog approaching, which is easier to deal with than say other leash-reactive dogs barking and lunging. And neutral or disinterested dogs are easier than alert (staring, pulling, perked ears, hackles up, etc) other dogs.
Understanding dog body language - your dog's and how the other dog’s body language affects your dog is a critical tool in anticipating and getting ahead of reactivity. By learning how to read your dog’s body language and recognizing triggers early, you can help prevent your dog from becoming over threshold.
It's also important to advocate for your dog by managing the environment and setting your dog up for success.
What does your dog's environment have to do with dog reactivity?
Another factor is the environment and what your dog's expectations are for a given space. At dog parks, for example, where there’s a lot of hustle and bustle and dogs and other dog owners walking around at a distance, each individual dog may not be of that much concern.
(Cautionary note: That's not to say a dog park is a good idea for a reactive dog! Key word is "distance," and if you can't be sure you'll have plenty of distance from other dogs/other dog owners at a dog park, it's not an environment I recommend unless you know your dog, the dog park, and the dogs/dog owners really well and have the ability to keep control of the experience.)
Conversely, if we’re on a totally quiet, empty street, and one dog shows up, he’s going to be a lot more interested/concerned with that one dog (especially if it appears suddenly). When he is being walked by himself, he is much more likely to choose the “flight” option rather than the “fight” option as opposed to when he is with Koa, who gives him a false sense of security (“my sister will beat you up!”)
As with all reactivity, leash reactivity depends on your individual dog - and your individual dog at that moment.
Applying your knowledge of your dog's thresholds in more situations
This is a lot to keep in mind, I know. But with time and attention and practice, it becomes second nature. As discussed in the management guide, logging reactions with as much detail as possible helps paint a picture of what you should be looking for. This will help you make better predictions of how your dog will react in a given environment and allow you to proactively manage the situation.
Additionally, understanding your dog's specific triggers and thresholds can also help when it comes to introducing new dogs or situations. By knowing what makes your dog uncomfortable, you can set up controlled environments for desensitization and counterconditioning dog training.
If you can anticipate your dog's behavior, you are much more likely to be able to set your dog up for success and navigate the world together in a more relaxed and joyful way! It may be challenging at first, but with patience and dedication, you can work towards a more comfortable threshold for your dog.
Remember to always prioritize your dog's well-being and continue working on training techniques that address the root cause of your dog's reactivity.
Next up in the Reactivity Channel on Dogly
As you get to know your dog more in reactive situations and what to do, you'll be able to use your understanding of your dog and thresholds in multiple scenarios as you continue here in Dogly's Reactivity Channel.
If you have any questions on management, thresholds, or working with your dog's reactivity, jump into our Community Discussion. Continue in our Reactivity Channel where you'll learn everything you need to know for your dog from our community of Dogly Training Advocates.
If you ever need more individualized guidance, get started in your dog's training plan here.