Thresholds are borders at the edge of a dog’s peaceful, comfortable state – the place or time when some stimulus causes the dog to experience stress, anxiety, or fear. A trigger is any stressor that occurs within the dog’s threshold, resulting in reactive behavior.
When a dog is “over threshold,” as Sunny Weber explains in Beyond Flight or Fight, “it means that the animal has lost control of logic and his brain is engulfed with stress hormones, making reasoned thought or learning impossible.”
What is your dog’s threshold? Some extend as far as they can see in any direction, but once a scary visitor is inside the house, they relax. For some dogs it’s all about proximity – the closer the threat, the more intense the reaction. For others it’s the unexpected. Inanimate objects like parked cars and plastic bags startled them if they appear where they weren’t used to seeing them. Studying your dog’s threshold is important because with every repetition, a dog’s reactive behavior becomes stronger and more established.
Canine body language offers plenty of clues if we train ourselves to notice them. Handlers whose attention wanders won’t observe changes in posture, ear or tail positions, hackles, eyes, or facial expressions, all of which give important signals. When a dog leaps in the air and barking her head off, subtle cues had already come and gone, but with practice we learn to recognize them and redirect it before things progress into full reactive mode. One simple test is whether they’ll take a treat. If not, we know we’re already over threshold. If they take it in a distracted way, we know we’re close. Either response gives us options like changing direction, moving to a new location, getting her attention back, and practicing familiar commands.
Knowing how to interrupt a reactive response is worthwhile, but avoiding it is even better. As Sue Brown explains in Juvenile Delinquent Dogs, “The first step to changing your dog’s behavior is to prevent it from happening in the first place…. Preventing a behavior is called ‘management’ and it is done by managing your dog’s environment. You will save a lot of frustration, stress, anger, and energy if you focus on managing your dog’s environment rather than reacting to your dog’s unwanted behaviors."
Knowing your dog's strengths and weaknesses is key to setting them up for success. If we are reacting, then we were too late. There is no training opportunity.
Instead of getting frustrated when the threshold has been passed, try to calm things down and evaluate what you may have missed. We can only help our dog's when we are proactively managing situations, this is how we create learning opportunities.