Working Over Threshold Will Get You Nowhere Fast
A few days ago, I was watching a video of a dog trainer trying to teach a dog to walk nicely on a leash. It was a struggle as the dog pulled all over the place wanting to be here, there, and everywhere at once. The trainer had a horrible time simply getting the dog’s attention, which is something he wouldn’t have an issue with in normal circumstances.
As I watched, I became extremely frustrated. I even found myself saying to my laptop (as if the trainer could somehow hear me), “The dog is over threshold. You can’t work from there.” Honestly, I don’t even know why he was even trying since the endeavor was doomed to fail from the get-go.
That video inspired this dog training article. I suspect that inattentiveness to arousal levels is probably one of the main reasons dog training falls apart. So, today, I want to help you understand that very important concept in dog training known as “threshold”.
Experiencing Threshold for Yourself
Imagine that it is Monday morning. Your alarm goes off, again and again, and you hit the snooze one too many times. Now, you’re running behind.
You hop in the shower… and discover there’s something wrong with the hot water (not working).
When you go to the kitchen…you discover you are out of coffee.
No problem, you can go through a drive-thru. When you get there, they tell you to pull up and wait because they are putting on a fresh pot “just for you”.
As you pull out of the drive-thru, you spill a little on your lap.
You try to make up time and move faster than normal…and get pulled over to be handed a speeding ticket.
Finally, you make it to work. You are only two minutes late. (Pretty good considering the morning you’ve had.)
Unfortunately for you, your boss has a sense of humor, and says, “Glad to see you decided to show up to work this morning.” Normally, this wouldn’t bother you. But today, pick up your entire metal desk and throw it across the room at him.
This is a situation where your boss’s comment drove you “over threshold”. It’s like the saying, “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. The more stress you experienced, the higher your arousal levels climbed. (For our purposes, we’ll think of stress and arousal as basically the same thing.)
Up until that point, you were able to interact with your environment. But when your boss triggered you, your emotions hijacked your ability to think clearly and it sent you into reacting to the situation instead. Let’s dig more into this dynamic.
The Importance of Sub-Threshold Thinking
When training a dog, you want your dog to be able to process information at the best of its ability. However, the ability to process new information is directly related to arousal/stress levels.
Think of the relationship as being like a seesaw. On the one side you have “ability to process information and learn new things”. On the other, you have “stress/arousal”.
When stress/arousal is at a normal, active level (which is all the way down on our seesaw), the dog’s ability to process and learn is high. But as stress/arousal goes significantly higher, the ability to process new information goes significantly lower.
I realize this is not a perfect metaphor, and here’s why. Zero arousal leads to zero engagement (the dog will be resting). You need to have a certain level of arousal for your dog to do things. In fact, slightly elevated levels of arousal are best for learning, and the slightly elevated levels reflect positive feelings around the activities. I try to reflect this in the above graphic by making the “ground level” Optimal Arousal Baseline for Learning. The seesaw is only a visual metaphor to help you understand the relationship in more extreme circumstances, so don’t take it too far.
Here’s another graph I use with my clients.
If you look at the graph, you will see two lines. The line going left to right indicates whether something is being experienced as good or bad, safe or unsafe. The line going up represents arousal level.
Pay close attention to that dotted line. That represents the threshold. Note that the more scary or exciting something is, the lower the threshold becomes. As the dog becomes more sensitive, the likelihood of going over that threshold line increases dramatically.
Under that threshold is “sub-threshold”. I call it the “interactive zone” because that’s where it’s possible to interact with the environment and others.
Over that threshold line is “over threshold”. Here, interacting with the environment gives way to reacting. On the left side of the graph, dogs become so fearful they run away or aggressively attack. On the right side of the graph, joyful dogs become so excited they can’t stop themselves from doing what they’re doing.
So, bottom line: When a dog’s stress/arousal levels are high and pushing the threshold, that’s not the best state for your dog to learn in. And you really don’t want to even try to teach your dog anything when it is over the threshold. Your goal is to keep your dog in that “zone of responsiveness” where your dog can interact with you freely despite all that is going on around it.
This is why the dog trainer in the video was struggling so much. His dog was over the threshold. It needed to be in a calmer state in order to interact with him rather than react to its environment.
How to Tell if Your Dog is Nearing the Threshold
It’s all about attention. If your dog’s attention is starting to become consumed by a trigger, then you are moving toward that threshold. Here are some signs to watch for.
- Loss of interest in treats
- Overfocus with attention
- Stiffening posture
Examples of Over-Threshold Dog Behaviors
- Barking and lunging, aggressively or excitedly
- Barking at guests, aggressively or excitedly
- Jumping on guests excitedly
- Puppy nipping at children who are running around
If you’re paying attention, you know when your dog is over the threshold. The most obvious indicator is that it is unable to respond (interact) with you when you try to interfere.
What NOT to Do When Your Dog Is Nearing or Goes Over The Threshold
This is where aversive trainers will go directly to “corrections”. The dog is jumping on guests, they “correct” the behavior. When a dog growls at strangers, they “correct’ a behavior. This “correcting” of behaviors is ultimately a very bad idea.
In cases like these, the issue is one of stress/arousal levels being too high. You want those levels to go down.
When a dog is “corrected”, do you think that adds stress or decreases stress? I think the answer is obvious. Adding stress is not conducive to helping the dog to get in a better state of mind to learn.
Here’s a general rule of thumb for you: The answer to a stress/arousal problem is NOT to add more stress/arousal.
When aversive trainers “correct” arousal issues, their goal is to instill enough fear that the cause the dog to shut down. Their dog is so afraid of their handler that they just hold still and don’t do anything for fear of more bad things happening. This is not healthy for the dog, and it’s not good for the human-dog relationship.
What Can You Do Instead?
Rather than doing something that adds stress/arousal, let’s try to avoid those pesky high-arousal levels in the first place and work to get those arousal levels down when we need to.
Set Your Dog Up for Success
To begin with, your goal should always avoid asking your dog to do something it cannot do. Instead, ask it to do something it can do, and then build on that.
That means you want to avoid any situation that will drive your dog over the threshold in the first place. If you dog barks and lunges at other dogs, then keep your dog far away from other dogs.
Or, to look at the example of the dog trainer in the video I mentioned earlier…
If the dog is on a walk in an environment where it cannot focus on you and is incessantly pulling, then that means the dog cannot perform in that environment. So, don’t even go there.
Instead, figure out what environment you need to be in for your dog to focus on you and not pull (assuming you have trained loose-leash walking, which should be done first). Start working there, even if it is in the house. Once the dog responds strongly there, then you are ready to take it all the way outside…to the back deck or patio. Once the dog is strong there, then you take it to the back yard. Once the dog is strong there, then you take it to the front yard. Once the dog is strong there, then you take it to the sidewalk in front of the house running from one end of the property to the other. Maybe you could go on several super-short walks rather than a couple long ones. And you keep expanding (increasing the difficulty) a little at a time, depending on what your dog demonstrates it can do.
Think of it this way, if I were signed up to be the Green Bay Packers’ new quarterback, they would not have me suit up and handle a football for the first time in an actual game. Instead, they would have me practice daily, do weight lifting, do some cardio, learn the plays, etc. In other words, they would expect me to practice, practice, practice before they ever considering putting me in a game.
It’s the same with your dog. When your dog encounters a situation that could cause it to go over threshold, that’s the game. That’s not the time to start practicing. Practice for the game, not in the game.
Get the Dog Out of Dodge
If you find yourself in a situation where your dog is going over threshold, then the first thing you need to do is get your dog out of there. Usually, that means getting distance between you and the trigger.
This where the “emergency get out of Dodge” cue comes in. Have a super-high value treat paired with a special recall cue (I use “wheeeeee”) that you use specifically for going in reverse (away from the trigger) quickly. When the dog hears the cue, it can chase after you to get the treat. And when you are done, you are several more feet away. Keep adding distance until the dog isn’t being triggered by it any longer.
Earlier, I mentioned that a lot of the struggle is going to be with attention. The trigger gets the dog’s attention, and then sucks in the rest of the dog’s attention until all the attention is consumed and the dog overfocuses.
Let’s get that focus off the trigger and onto you. This is where a strong “watch me” cue will come in handy. If you have a strong “watch me”, you will be able to get your dog’s attention off the trigger before it is too late. And that will make getting distance that much easier.
Bring Arousal Levels Down
If you are dealing with an arousal issue, then you want to encourage your dog to calm down. Teaching your dog to focus can help a lot with this, and you can use it when you are on the edges of a trigger’s influence. But, for the most part, your calming work will happen in the home.
After your dog has been triggered, you may want to offer your dog something to occupy it’s time and mind, such as a frozen Kong. For this, you can just put a finger-full of peanut butter, canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling), or canned squeeze cheese on the inner rim of a Kong and freeze it. Your dog will have to work a bit to get it all out. Plus, it’s a great treat on a warm day.
Another option is what I call a “lickety-bowl”. Portion out a bit of a can of wet food into a bowl. Add some water. Mush the food with the water until it’s about the consistency of a thin milkshake. Pour the concoction into a small slow feeder bowl. Freeze it. When it comes out frozen, your dog may hesitate to lick on it, so I like to add a line of canned squeeze cheese across the top and mush it around. My dogs absolutely love their lickety-bowls.
You might decide to get help from a force-free trainer (here’s the link to contact me) for your dog’s arousal issues. More than likely, they will help your dog to become less sensitive to potential triggers. And they may give you some strategies for getting out of situations that you had not thought of.
Finally, if your dog is struggling with calming down, maybe it simply needs more calm time in its daily life. We live in a world that likes to be on the go-go-go. It’s not easy for us to slow down, so we often don’t realize that slowing down can be extremely healthy for our dogs.
Start changing patterns that include high-arousal triggers, and maybe avoid them completely. That may mean you don’t walk every single day, and that’s okay. It may mean less fetch and little more down time in the afternoon. That’s okay, too. Your dog will still need to have high-arousal times, but it doesn’t have to be all the time.
Learn to Deal with Arousal Levels
We had some anxiety and destructive behavioral issues with our puppy, and weren’t sure where to turn. Luckily, we found Bo! We ended up working with all three of our dogs in our home, they all had a blast with Bo, and we all learned a lot, and things have gotten so much better in a just a few short weeks. I really feel confident that we now have the knowledge to keep it up, and to move through any future issues we may have. Prices are incredibly reasonable for all you get, and I would recommend Puppy Tutor Dog Training to anyone!
Arousal levels are involved in everything you do with your dog. Is your dog able to pay attention to you? Would your dog rather lie around than do things with you? Is your dog out of control on walks? Does your dog react when guests come over?
It’s not uncommon for “behavior issues” to not really be behavior issues at all, but arousal issues. In those cases, if you try to address the behaviors, you’re chasing the wrong solution.
If you have a dog who struggles with arousal issues, I can help you through private lessons. I work both virtually online and in-home (within my service radius, of course). The sooner you get help, the better.
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Hi! I’m Bo McGuffee, owner of Puppy Tutor Dog Training. My mission is to make human dog training accessible and affordable. If you are looking for an alternative to the more aggressive training styles out there, then you’ve found the perfect dog trainer for you and your dog.