‘Thresholds’ in Dog Training – What Does it Mean?


In this Holidays4Dogs article, will discuss the term ‘thresholds’ in relation to dog training and behaviour. Understanding the concept of thresholds in dog training can help in all manner of everyday situations, as well as helping dogs with behaviour issues to learn much faster and with much less stress.

The concept of thresholds in dog training and behaviour is nothing new, even though the term itself is increasingly used in contemporary dog training and behaviour circles.

What exactly is a ‘threshold’?

In a nutshell – when a dog crosses a threshold, he is moving from one emotional state to another which causes a negative reaction. Although the term is more often used in relation to dealing with fearful and reactive dogs, it is nevertheless a fundamental element in more basic learning situations, such as puppy socialisation.

Understanding your dog’s limitations, is particularly useful for owners of reactive dogs. Understanding thresholds, makes all the difference to behaviour modification training. (See our other Holidays 4 Dogs articles about helping the nervous dog).

Knowledge of the concept, can also help people to become more aware of their dog’s body language and therefore create a deeper human- canine bond.

Signs a dog is over threshold may include, barking and lunging at another dog, or a stranger, (although reactions are often much more subtle than this – see below).

However, it is not quite so easy to gauge exactly when the dog is under threshold. In other words, the point at which the dog is calm and responsive to its owner and where behaviour changes can be made with the most success.

You can break down a dog’s response to a stimulus  for example, a car, bird, or a particular noise such as fireworks – into several main parts;

The distance to the stimulus – how close does the dog need to be before eliciting a reaction?
Time span – how long does the dog need to experience the stimulus before he shows a response? Is the pup uncomfortable after30 seconds? Or five minutes?
Strength of stimulus – a stationary car is less likely to produce a response than one moving at speed.
The number of stimuli, or triggers – a jogger in bright clothing or, several other dogs approaching.

What reaction can you expect, once a dog has gone over threshold?

Faced with a particular stimulus dogs don’t always show obvious signs – barking, or growling. In addition, a stimulus doesn’t have to be one thing a dog is afraid of. It can be anything that increases the dogs reaction and this may involve a combination of elements.

Some dogs will simply shut down and freeze. Others will become over exciteddog sitting, pet sitting and behave in an exuberant manner.

Some will be so distracted by the thing that is bothering them, they will ‘zone’ out completely. In the latter case, this often means they will be unable to focus on their handler. In this state, a dog is unable to learn.

When a dog goes over threshold he is in a state of stress. The fight, flight, or freeze states are activated in the brain which means the dog is only concerned about his survival.

Although going over threshold means that the dog may behave in a way we don’t like, it doesn’t mean to say the dog is behaving badly.

His reactions are responses to external stimuli that he simply doesn’t understand and, therefore, his innate instincts kick in. However, because of selective breeding, over reactivity is a common problem in many of our domestic dogs.

How do I keep my dog under threshold?

The hardest thing to grasp about thresholds in dog behaviour is that they are constantly changing depending on the circumstances. This may involve factors such as distance, or intensity. As well as this, different dogs may have the same stimulus thresholds, but their responses may be very different.

To help your dog stay under threshold, try and establish what triggers are the cause of a reactive response. Observe the dog’s body language, what is going on in the environment and note how the dog reacts to this.

Eventually, you can predict when your dog is about to go over threshold. By predicting your dog’s threshold, means you can adjust your distance to the stimulus, or the intensity of the stimulus. As a result, you can work with the dog when he is in a less stressed state and, importantly, at the point when he is more able to learn.

Can I raise my dog’s threshold?

Yes, indeed, and this is the aim. By raising your dog’s threshold you condition him to accept a higher level of stimulus before he reaches a reactive state. This involves desensitisation and, if done correctly, your dog will accept greater stimulation before demonstrating a negative response.

Understanding thresholds can help you, and your dog, to remain calm and confident in all sorts of situations. For challenging dogs, such as fearful or reactive dogs, understanding how to work under threshold provides the dog owner with an advantage. This makes progress much faster and more successful and crucially, without the need for harsh handling methods.