What do “under threshold” and “over threshold” mean?

“Under threshold” is when your dog is able to think, learn, and listen. THIS is the “sweet spot” where you want to do all your training. Dogs under threshold are able to:
  • Pay attention to you
  • Eat treats
  • Listen to known cues
  • Take their focus away from stuff in the environment
“Over threshold” is when your dog is so overwhelmed by something (a dog, person, unfamiliar object, situation, etc.), that they have trouble thinking, learning, or listening. Instead, their brains and bodies are geared up for fight or flight! THIS is the emotional danger zone, you want to get your dog out of the situation ASAP. Dogs over threshold might:
  • Be unable to focus on you
  • Stop taking treats
  • Take treats with lots more force than usual
  • Hyperfocus on their trigger (dog, person, etc.)
  • Perform the behaviors you’re trying to change (Lunging on leash, barking, hiding, growling, etc.)

Why do we want our dogs under threshold?

Ever heard “practice makes perfect”? Well, every time your dog does a behavior, they’re practicing it! That’s why it’s so helpful to prevent them from it.
By preventing our dog from rehearsing the feelings and behaviors we are trying to change, we make it easier to make progress! We also help reduce our dog’s overall stress levels.

How to keep your dog under threshold

A big focus of your behavior plan is helping your dog to stay under threshold during training. The “sweet spot” for our best, most effective behavior change is under threshold!
As you work with your dog, read their body language. Did they just stop taking food? Did they start barking? Did they try to hide? As soon as your dog tips over threshold, you can help them out. Often, this means moving away from the situation, backing up a step, or avoiding the situation completely.
Here’s an example of each:
Moving away: If your dog is leash reactive and starts barking, use “here” (if recommended) or use your exit strategy and walk briskly away from what they’re barking at or use parked cars to block their view until the scary thing is out of sight. Use moving away when you can’t control your dog’s trigger (another dog, human, etc.) or when you are the trigger (like in resource guarding or owner-directed fear or aggression).
Backing up a step in your training: If your dog is afraid of having their collar put on, and you’re slowly conditioning them to get dressed, and they suddenly panic, stop and give them a break! When they are ready to start again, back up a step or two from the point at which they went over threshold. Use backing up when you control your dog’s trigger. (Being brushed, having a collar/harness put on, being handled for grooming, etc.)
Avoiding the situation: If you see a situation in which you know your dog is likely to go over threshold, avoid it! Maybe your dog is afraid of visitors and you have a 3 year old coming over who is really loud and exuberant, and has a hard time listening. Time to put them in another room with a stuffed Kong or chew and let them avoid the kiddo! Maybe you see that dog your dog always reacts to coming down the street; time to turn around 🙂 See the Management post for more tips on this.
If you aren’t sure of what steps to take for your dog, let your trainer know and we’ll be happy to guide you!