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How to Use Threshold Levels to Train a Dog

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

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Using Threshold Levels to Desensitize a Dog

If you ever spoke to a dog trainer or a dog behavior professional, you may have heard about dog threshold levels. But what exactly are they, and why do they make such a difference on the outcome of training and changing behavior in dogs? There are many good reasons.

Threshold levels play a prominent role in any desensitization program when done well. Actually, threshold levels are at the heart of desensitization and are crucial for the outcome. They can make the difference between desensitizing a dog or sensitizing it to triggers. When threshold levels in dogs are ignored, you are most likely "flooding," which is the opposite of desensitization.

What Are Threshold Levels in Dogs?

According to my dictionary it means " The point that must be exceeded to begin producing a given effect or result or to elicit a response." In simple words, threshold is an imaginary line drawn to separate reactivity and non-reactivity. This means that before that imaginary line, you have a dog "sub-threshold", and beyond that line, you have a dog "over the threshold". For desensitization to work well, you need to be before that threshold line, in an area where the dog does acknowledge the stimulus but it does not have any major effect on the dog. Go over it and you will likely have a dog that over reacts to the stimuli and its behavior starts breaking down.

In order to determine threshold lines, you need to be able to "read" your dog well. In other words, you need to be able to constantly scan those subtle signs of relaxation, alertness and stress so you can intervene accordingly. Different trainers have different "interpretations" of over or under threshold. For some, a dog is under threshold when it is calm, almost sleepy, for others a dog is under threshold when the dog is stressed, but not stressed enough to react by barking, lunging etc. In my opinion, you definitively do not want a dog on edge that is too stressed to learn and cognitively function, but you may want a dog that acknowledges the stimulus but without growing concerned about it.

Myth: "my dog is not barking, so he's under threshold or "my dog is taking treats, so he is definitely under"." I would not rely on lack of vocalizations as proof of working under threshold and I would not rely on taking treats as reliable proof either. Indeed, I have seen nervous dogs who did't bark but their whole body was sending stress signals left and right and I have also seen dogs capable of taking treats, gulping them down but still not being able to cognitively function and learn during a desensitization and counter-conditioning program. Note: There are some dogs though that naturally take treats fast. It's good to know the individual dog and how he takes treats at home in a natural setting before making assumptions. We will see a few examples of dogs over and under threshold in the next paragraphs.

*Note: not all dogs when over threshold manifest their emotions through visible snarling, barking and lunging. Some freeze, become very subdued, up to reaching a state of learned helplessness; whereas others may become distracted or do something else such as get start fooling around and getting a case of zoomies. When facing an adrenaline rush, dogs may indeed go into fight, flight, freeze, or fool-around. Confused about these scientific terms? Get a refresher course by reading the article " A Guide on Dog Behavior Modification Terms".

This dog is under threshold and able to learn despite the other dog behind a fence.

This dog is under threshold and able to learn despite the other dog behind a fence.

Dog Over and Under Threshold: Some Examples

So how do you know when a dog is over and under threshold, and does this apply only to dog aggression or other emotions? Let's take a look. Telling if a dog is under or over threshold, may look like an easy task, but it is easier said than done. For a non-expert the difference between under and over threshold may be simply just the presence or absence of vocalization. But as we have seen, there is much more than noises in dogs. Just as in people, you do not need to scream to manifest fear!

This is why it is best to hire a professional when dealing with dog behavior problems. A professional may be able to assess the most subtle behavior changes by looking at the dog's body; this can be a quick lip flick, a slight movement of the corners of the mouth, a slight evidence of piloerection (raised hair).

These signs when noticed early, tell the expert that the dog is starting to get stressed, and the behavior is starting to fall apart. Quick intervention is needed to prevent a reaction and going from under threshold to over.

Threshold levels are not only used for gauging reactivity but for other emotional states as well, fear, excitement and anxiety for example. Remember: No matter how good we can be in "reading dogs" we will never get into their mind and be able to determine exactly how they are feeling. For instance, some dogs suffering from separation anxiety may still be able to eat when their owner is away, but are still very tense and anxious!

Even the most experienced dog behavior professionals may have their "oops" moments when they are desensitizing a dog and the dog unexpectedly reacts and goes over threshold. No matter how systematically you work, there are always triggers that may make your dog more likely to go over threshold. Things as subtle as the owner's tone of voice or emotional state, the weather, background noises, previous exposure to triggers can make a difference!

Leslie McDevitt in the book "Control Unleashed", claims "threshold levels are "fluid and contextual". It is very important, therefore, to learn how to "gauge the dog's threshold and work under it" as Leslie further explains.

How Do You Help a Dog Stay Under Threshold?

Desensitization. In other words, systematic desensitization entails presenting a frightening stimuli in such a way that it looks, sounds, appears less frightening. You, therefore, make it smaller, less noisy, less intimidating.

If you are afraid of riding big horses, a pony ride may be a good start. Back to dogs, say your dog is scared of thunder? You play a recording of a thunderstorm at very low levels, sub threshold so your dog acknowledges the sound but does not react. Say your dog is scared of people? You present them at a distance, so they are less intimidating. Say your dog is scared of the vet? You take him to the waiting room (desensitization) and feed him cookies (which is counter-conditioning).

13 Ways to Help Your Dog Stay Under Threshold

So how do you deal with a dog that is over threshold and you have a hard getting him sub-threshold no matter how hard you try in desensitizing him by increasing distance, playing sounds at a low volume etc? What if you live in an area where triggers pop out of no where? Here are several tips.

  1. Consider health. As the saying goes, a healthy mind in a healthy body. Any time we want to work on behavior modification we need to consider health conditions that may lower a dog's threshold. For example, if your dog is in pain, consider that this may cause him to react more than if he has no pain. Consider as well that a recent study has shown that dogs suffering from skin allergies may be more likely to manifest behavioral problems. Make sure your dog gets restful deep sleep (where your dog dreams and his body twitches).
  2. Lay a foundation of trust. If you recently rescued your dog, it may be important to first lay a foundation of trust. Give your dog some time to de-compress. In general, newly rescued dogs take up to 3 months to settle in and start feeling more relaxed. Many newly re-homed dogs often have loads of stress hormones circulating their bodies and all the changes may cause them to be more likely to react and be more difficult to be under threshold. If your dog has a history of stress, he may need what Leslie McDeviit calls a "cortisol vacation."
  3. Provide distance. As mentioned, many dogs are calmer when the trigger is at a certain distance. You will therefore have to gauge the distance that works best for your dog. For some dogs, the distance may be 200 feet, for others it may be 600. I know you said you have land, but have you ever tried even a mile or more from where may not even make out whether what he sees moving is a dog or person or something else? That can be a starting point.
  4. Offer less intense forms. If possible, expose your dog to less intense forms of the trigger. If your dog reacts at dogs/people walking by the yard, you can try to practice several "Look at That" games from the window as a starting point.
  5. Block the visuals. Placing a sort of barrier that reduces the sight of whatever triggers your dog may help too. In this case, you may find it helpful working behind a hedge, a wood trellis, a play pen panel.
  6. Use more salient treats. Invest in the highest values treats you can and that your dog is super eager to have. Many have success using low-sodium sliced hot dogs, string cheese or cut up beef liver. If your dog has food allergies or a sensitive tummy, ask your vet for advice.
  7. Use a calm stimulus dog. Is your dog reactive towards dogs? If you have friend with a calm dog who can walk back and forth by your property line or if you can afford a dog trainer who owns a calm stimulus dog, this may be the best option as this offers you the advantage of practicing set-ups in a controlled environment.
  8. Use fake stimulus stooge dogs. These are furry, large dog-size stuffed animals meant to resemble dogs. There are many different breeds featured. Present the dog at a distance with his butt facing your dog for a less confrontational encounter. Practice as if the dog was real. I have a fake Rottweiler I have been using for years to practice with before my guests dogs were allowed to see my real Rottweilers.
  9. Use calming aids. Some types of calming aids may help lower the threshold. Some dog owners have had success using calming aids for dogs such as Anxiety wraps, Thunder shirts, Rescue Remedy, treats with L- theanine etc.
  10. Get prescription medications from your vet. The goal of prescription meds is to calm the dog enough to allow the dog's cognitive functions to work and for the dog to be sub-threshold when implementing behavior modification. Medications may take some time to work. For example, fluoxetine can take a few weeks to fully kick in. It may also take a bit to find the ideal dose and type of drug to find that sweet spot where the dog is aware of the trigger yet comfortable enough to take treats and start learning.
  11. Use tools that give you more control. A well-fitted front attachment harness (Easy Walk harness, Walk your dog with love harness, Balance harness, Sensible harness, Freedom harness) can help you gain better control of your dog and increase your confidence. Make sure your dog is conditioned well to wearing it by creating positive associations.
  12. Manage the environment: Avoid situations your dog cannot handle. Your aim is for trust and confidence to grow so go slowly at your dog's pace. As the saying goes 'slow and steady wins the race." Avoid exposure to people walking by and dogs unless you are doing behavior modification presenting these triggers with your dog under threshold. This may mean bringing your dog out after you have scanned the environment to ascertain nobody is around, bringing your dog back in when you notice a trigger approaching ahead of time. Here is how to train a fluent turn: how to train the emergency u-turn.
  13. Hire a pro. Last but not least, your best bet is to work along with a professional using force-free behavior modification. These experts can help you work with your dog under threshold, ensuring your dog is always comfortable while also playing it safe.

As seen, even in dogs emotions tend to get in the way. To put yourself in Rover's shoes, imagine suffering from arachnophobia (fear of spiders, that is), being placed in a container full of tarantulas and being asked to solve a math problem. Most likely you would hardly be able to think cause your adrenaline is running so high and your body is concentrating on more important functions! So why are we so surprised when our companion animals react to stimuli in their environment? Perhaps because as part of domestication we want them to adhere to human etiquette and act in a more "civilized way".

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: What causes snarling and biting in my dog who is one-year-old? He just started doing this, as well as growling.

Answer: Dogs usually don't start exhibiting such behaviors for no rhyme or reason. There can be many causes for the behavior you are seeing, actually too many really to make a list. You need to evaluate exactly what triggers the behavior, what happens exactly before it starts? In behavior terms, it's called the "antecedent," it's what evokes the behavior that you must look for. Once you find that puzzle piece, you know what you need to work on with the help of a behavior professional. Sometimes, the trigger may not be readily recognized. There can also be a medical cause at play. If so, you may want to consult with a vet to rule out medical problems and then a dog behavior professional if no health issues are found, which you may need in any case, for help in implementing behavior modification.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli

Is your dog over threshold and reactive? Share your stories!

Allie on July 09, 2020:

Hey! I had a question about a course of action to take regarding reactivity. Is it better to scatter food / click and treat and walk your dog away form the trigger or stay under the threshold and sit and play LAT while sitting? I’m not sure which is more beneficial (assuming we stay under the threshold) to sit and treat or walk away - both while our dog is seeing the trigger but continuing to engage with us! Thanks!!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 12, 2019:

Holly, this is a tricky one, because the behavior is instinctive and to a large extent adaptive! In other words, it's important for dogs to keep bugs away as some types may bite so this is something we don't want to totally extinguish. However, to the point of being terrorized and hiding in the bathroom, then this turns into being maladaptive. So what you can do is try to take him out at times that flies are less likely to bother and perhaps if your dog likes water, you can turn on a sprinkler to play so that flies will stay out of the way. It may help too to do high motion games so that these bugs don't stand any chance to try to buzz around and attach so lots of fetch, tug and running around to entice him to chasing you as you are waving your arms, giggling and having fun (as long as he is not scared of you acting bonkers) and then straight back into the home once he is tired and getting ready to settle.

Holly on June 14, 2018:

My dog is scared of flies and mosquitos! Do you think treats will work for him? He's 85 pounds and bursts through the kitty door in our baby gate and hides in the bathtub. Let us know if there is anything more we can try - we'd love if he wanted to come hang out with us in the backyard!!

Delia Daher on February 04, 2018:

Dear Adrienne,

You have finally answered some questions regarding standoffish behavior of my 4 year old Bernese. I was reading your article about the fear stages between 8 weeks and 8 months having a lasting effect. I think that is what has happened to my Sugar. During this stage we visited family for what would be my father-in-law's last Thanksgiving with us. They happened to have 3 Snauzers who werent very friendly with my puppy and when hubby was to watch them outsite going potty ended with their dogs cornering mine against the fence just barking at her. She stayed under the table by me the rest of visit.

So all of a sudden 3 years ago she starts running and hiding out back by the fence any time we try to groom her, bathe, brush, clip nails, and won't come back in for hours. We got a puppy about a month ago and she runs and hides outside, wants nothing to do with it, HELP pls. This just breaks my heart.

Thank you for your consideration.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 09, 2017:

I would recommend having a trainer come to your home and helping you out. This seems way to out of control to try things on your own. If you try to restrain him, with such high arousal levels, he may attempt to bite.

Out of control on December 06, 2017:

My dog has no warm up to the overreacting out of control barking when anyone pulls into the driveway. And Lord it seems even worse when there is a delivery person. I have not had any success preventing him from running and leaping up the window, across the couch, or even jumping up the door. He gets all in my blinds. It is like he loses his mind. I really don't know how to make him stop. He is reactive to guests as well but not as bad. With guests he jumps on them when they come in the door. Male guests he seems to have a disdain for. Once guests enter and sit down he then wants to put his wet nose on them and that is NOT okay with most. What can I do? He was a stray and I have had him about 2yrs now. He may be about 4yrs old and he is a pit mix. He is well behaved when we go on walks and to the pet store but at home he is a beast when guests come knocking or there is a delivery.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 21, 2013:

Yes, another dog may definitively influence threshold levels in dogs.

Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on September 30, 2012:

Terrific information. I can see whatr you mean aabout the threshold line. We have two dogs and they seem to get their reactions from each other. Great article.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 29, 2012:

I love your pack, so many different personalities never leave you bored! My male is more likely to get aroused compared to my female which is sort of bomb-proof for many things. It is interesting how their different personalities though influence each other. If my female sees my male worried about something, she will pick up that energy, not that she gets that aroused, but she gets more alert. But also, at times, when he is aroused and looks at her or me and sees calmness, if he is not too over threshold he will pick that calmness too. I think threshold levels vary also depending on the energy that surrounds them. I can send my dogs a bit over if I get up suddenly and rush to the window. and can send them under by caring less about a sudden noise that alerted them.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on September 29, 2012:

Jenny can get over the threshold and when she first came home, it seems she spent a lot of time on the floor(as cesar milan shows, it's who i learned it from). She is pretty good now. Bella still has that fear of a bath, even with treats, she won't take the treat! She is improving. Roscoe is so laid back, he pretty much stays under the threshold. What a wacky group I have. Gotta love 'em.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 29, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by Larry! The Lab I fostered last year was waaaay over threshold when the neighbors lightened fire crackers or she heard gunfire from hunters nearby. When this happened she would cower, shake and refuse any food. This lasted like for 15 minutes where any noise startled her and she was really reactive. As the 4th of July came near, I heard firecrackers in the distance but they weren't so loud, so we went out did a training session that she enjoyed and played fetch, and the session sort of kept her mind off the firecrackers. It also helped to keep her near my dogs which cared less about fire crackers, so she may also have thought, if they cared less , there must be no reason to react..so they had some play sessions in the yard with the firecracker noises in the distance.

Larry Fields from Northern California on September 29, 2012:

Hi alexadry,

Your hub reminded me of two experiences with my neighbor's family's Border Collie mix, who often accompanied me on day hikes.

As we were returning from a hike to Smith Lake in Desolation Wilderness (near Tahoe), we heard a tree fall a quarter mile ahead of us, and we felt the ground shake a bit. I continued walking for a minute, looked for Gurr, and found that he wasn't there.

Apparently the ground shaking was a new and scary experience for him. I walked back, put him on leash, and we continued, without incident, back to the trailhead. One more chapter in his canine education about how the world works.

Another time, we were at my neighbor's condo. She was getting ready to vacuum the carpet. Just before she flipped the switch, I said, "Gurr, vacuum cleaner." Then I worked to contain my own sensory issues, in order to set a good example for Gurr. He took it in stride. Afterward, my neighbor told me that Gurr usually freaks out when she is vacuuming.

"Vacuum cleaner" was not in Gurr's vocabulary, but apparently he understood that I was giving him a heads-up about something. Partial communication is better than no communication.

Voted up and interesting.