Helping Reactive Dogs: Keeping Your Dog Under Threshold
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Understanding thresholds is key to helping your reactive dog. What is a threshold? This term refers to the distance or intensity at which a dog can experience or be near a trigger without actually being triggered. A dog is "under threshold" when his brain is calm enough to think, learn, and make actual choices. He's "over threshold” when he's in the "red zone" and no longer thinking consciously but rather reacting from a purely emotional space. 


A dog over threshold is in fight or flight mode. Her brain is surging with adrenaline and cortisol - not only is she incapable of making “good” choices, she’s incapable of making choices at all. In this state, a dog quite literally cannot learn. When our 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. 


Keeping your dog under threshold is the key to improving reactivity, and a good management plan is a big part of this (see previous article). As you work with your dog under threshold, you’ll find that his threshold will expand. 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 the trigger. Keep in mind that the less negative experience your dog has in proximity to a trigger (ie reactions), the fast he will learn that maybe those other dogs (children, cats, bicycles, skateboards…) aren’t so bad after all. 


However, there is more involved in a dog’s threshold than simply distance. Let’s consider my reactive dog, Muchacho, as an example. For Mooch, distance is certainly a factor. But so is the size of the dog (bigger dogs = scarier), the direction the dog is moving in (away from him isn’t so bad, directly towards him isn’t so good), the way the dog is moving (slow moving, super neutral dog is a lot easier to deal with than a prancy young dog, which is easier to deal with than say another reactive dog barking and lunging), the other dog’s body language (again - neutral or disinterested is easier than alert, staring, pulling towards him, hackles up, perked ears, etc). 


Another factor is the environment and what his expectations are for a given space. So a park where there’s a lot of hustle and bustle and dogs walking around at a distance, each individual dog may not be of that much concern. But 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). Furthermore, 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!”) 


This is a lot to keep in mind, I know. But with time and attention, it becomes second nature. As discussed in the Management article, logging reactions with as much detail as possible helps paint a picture of what you should be looking for. As a trainer, there is nothing I love more than a client that really knows their dog. There is really nothing that will help you be successful at helping your dog work through her reactivity as careful observation and really, really getting to know your dog will. If you can predict her behavior with great 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.