Understanding Dog Threshold Levels
What Are Threshold Levels in Dogs?
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 threshold levels, 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.
So 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
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, the weather, background noises, previous exposure to triggers can make a difference!
Leslie McDevitt in the book "Control Unleashed", claims that 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).
Aids to Work 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.? This is where you may need the aid of calming aids. There are cases of dogs that are highly reactive and need some help to calm down, let's take a look at some ideas on how to reduce threshold levels so to open the lines of learning and create the fertile grounds for counter-conditioning and desensitization.
- If your dog is too excited to see guests, try to walk him an hour prior. A tired dog is also less reactive and more likely to be easy to work on desensitization.
- If your dog is too scared of thunder, you can try Thundershirt/Anxiety Wrap/Storm Defender to help him stay under threshold while you desensitize. I have suggested these to many of my clients and they have noticed good results when accompanied with behavior modifications.
- If your dog has a history of stress, he may need what Leslie McDeviit calls a "cortisol vacation."
- If your dog is too fearful and aggressive towards other dogs to cognitively function, your vet may prescribe some medications so the his level of fear will decrease and he is capable of learning new, desirable behaviors for the purpose of replacing the old, undesirable ones.
*Note: these are just aids, they are not meant to be used alone but along with behavior modification! See a behavior professional to help you out.
As seen, even in dogs emotions tend to get in the way. To put yourself in Rover's shoes, imagine suffering from arachnophobia, 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".
© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli