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What Are Thresholds

In dog training there is one very important, yet underused strategy, which can be utilized to make significant change in a dog’s undesirable behavior. This is the use of thresholds in dog training.

Thresholds are very important when utilizing counterconditioning or desensitization, understanding thresholds can help prevent unwanted behaviors and are crucial to improving a dog’s overall mental state. Thresholds can be broken down into three main parts which are, under threshold, at threshold, and over threshold.

Thresholds can be applied in every aspect of dog training and occur daily, however in order to explain thresholds as a concept we will use the example of a dog who reactively barks at joggers while on a walk.

“A dog who is at threshold is aware of the stimuli that would normally illicit a response but has yet to display the undesirable behavior. “

The first part of thresholds is when a dog is under threshold. A dog who is under threshold is not displaying any unwanted behavior and is not aware of any stimuli that would cause the dog to react. 

Given our example of a dog who barks at joggers, a dog who does not notice a jogger running by and does not react to a jogger would be considered under threshold

For the most part being under threshold is simply the term used to describe the dog’s behavior in the absence of any stimuli that would illicit a response.

The next stage would be when a dog is at threshold. A dog who is at threshold is aware of the stimuli that would normally illicit a response but has yet to display the undesirable behavior.

In the example of the dog who barks at joggers the dog is at threshold when he sees the jogger running but before the dog begins to bark at the jogger.

This crucial moment when the dog is at threshold is when the dog should be rewarded in order to counter condition and desensitize the dog to the stimuli.

If the reward is given before the dog is at threshold then the dog will not successfully be counter conditioned, if rewards are continuously given before the dog is at threshold then the law of effect will apply and the dog will soon learn that a reward means that the unwanted stimuli is in close proximity.

“Once the dog is on the walk and they notice the jogger coming towards them they are at threshold, before the dog goes over threshold, they will begin to exhibit a behavior called loading.”

Unfortunately, a dog does not stay at threshold for very long and they can easily go above threshold in a moment’s notice.

This makes it extremely difficult for trainers and owners to reward the dog with the appropriate timing necessary for effective counterconditioning to take place.

Fortunately, owners and trainers can take measures in order to keep from going over threshold. Once the dog is on the walk and they notice the jogger coming towards them they are at threshold, before the dog goes over threshold, they will begin to exhibit a behavior called loading.

This is the behavior that happens the moment before the dog goes over threshold and it happens so quickly that the untrained eye will miss it.

Typically in a reactive dog who barks while on walks this loading behavior is in the form of a stare, however it can take many forms depending on the dog to include things such as, raised tail or hackles, ear twitches, speeding up on walks, and many other subtle behaviors.

Once the owner or trainer notices the loading behavior a correction can be given to the dog in order to keep the dog at threshold so that they can be rewarded.

Missing the important moment when the dog is at threshold and not rewarding it in time or failing to give the dog a correction while they are loading leads to the dog going over threshold.

“When dealing with a dog that is over threshold it is best to create distance from the stimuli or reduce the sound of the stimuli if training with noises, until the dog is back under threshold.”

The dog is over threshold when they begin to respond to the stimuli in the environment. Going back to the example of the dog who barks at a jogger, the dog is over threshold when it notices the jogger, the owner failed to reward the dog at threshold or correct the dog for displaying loading behaviors, and then the dog begins to bark and lunge at the jogger.

When the dog is over threshold either rewarding the dog or giving the dog corrections will be largely ineffective at this point as the dogs state of mind is in a high drive mode.

When dealing with a dog that is over threshold it is best to create distance from the stimuli, or reduce the sound of the stimuli if training with noises, until the dog is back under threshold.

Giving known commands while creating distance will also help get the dog under threshold. Once the dog is under threshold you can re attempt getting the dog  back at threshold in order to utilize counterconditioning.

When the dog is over threshold either rewarding the dog or giving the dog corrections will be largely ineffective at this point as the dog’s state of mind is in a high drive mode.

When dealing with a dog that is over threshold it is best to create distance from the stimuli or reduce the sound of the stimuli if training with noises, until the dog is back under threshold.

As can be seen, understanding thresholds can greatly impact the progress you make with your own dog. While the example given was that of a dog who barks at a jogger, the use of thresholds and counterconditioning can be applied to many other situations.

This is how many aggressive dogs can be successfully rehabilitated and how dogs can overcome fears of loud noises. As can be seen, understanding thresholds can greatly impact the progress you make with your own dog.

While the example given was that of a dog who barks at a jogger, the use of thresholds and counterconditioning can be applied to many other situations.

Dog training is not easy, as there is a limited window of opportunity to reward a dog before it goes over threshold, many owners make the mistake of rewarding the dog either to soon or too late which doesn’t help the situation and sometimes makes it worse. Now that you are armed with this information on thresholds you can begin to make positive changes in your dog training endeavors.

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