The Role of Thresholds in Dog Training and Behavior

When talking about dog training and behavior modification, you will hear the word threshold a lot. But what does that mean?

In hot pursuit of a mouse. Traffic? What traffic?

A threshold is a level of a stimulus at which it causes a reaction.

This is different for every stimulus and every dog. And I believe it can also change day to day. When you have a toothache, when you had a bad day at work ... you are more likely to react to things that wouldn't bother you any other day.

When a husband murders his wife one day because she put the mustard on the wrong side of the plate, you know there has been something going on there.

Same is true for dogs.

The three important factors when it comes to stimulus are distance, duration and intensity.

Last week I wrote about how we are training Cookie not to bother with traffic. The ultimate goal is to change the way she feels about it. Our ultimate goal is for her simply ignore it as something that has no importance whatsoever.

It is a good example of all three factors and how they work in combination.

We started our training far away.

Because we have the space, we started at about 70 yards. That's a distance where she would still notice what's going on but didn't care. We use the Look at That game.

At this point, we are down to 20 feet for cars, vans and small trucks. More accurately, ONE car, van or small truck that goes by without stopping. Two or more vehicles passing at the same time are a stronger stimulus and require further distance or larger treats. Same goes for the post office car, which actually pulls over in order to put the mail into the mailbox.

Large trucks, trucks with trailers, other larger equipment and ATVs are more upsetting to Cookie and do require more distance for her not to react.

Anything under 20 feet is too close for Cookie not to react.

The other day we went for a walk on a logging read near by. There is usually no traffic. But that day a truck was driving through. It was at a spot where we couldn't make our way further from the road because of the bush.

Cookie's reaction was a great example of what happens when the threshold is breached.

I could barely hold on to her; she was very upset. Fortunately, it didn't cause any major setback, meaning it didn't lower her threshold. Which could happen.

Often distance and intensity go hand in hand.

Good example of that is thunder or fireworks.

Jasmine didn't care about either of them, even if the noise had gone on all night. There were a couple of times, though, when she was in the yard to potty and a loud clap of thunder surprised us. It must have sounded as if something exploded right behind her bum. She got startled and almost ran into the house through a closed door.

Fortunately, that too didn't affect her overall threshold for these things.

The best case scenario is working with your dog where you can control all aspects of the environment.

Then you can train gradually for each of the aspects; distance, duration and intensity.

In real life, things happen the way they happen and you cannot always control them.

Then you just have to make the best of it.

One thing to remember is that stress accumulates. As I mentioned earlier, any previous stress, physiological or psychological, will affect your dog's threshold to any next stimulus.

If your dog has a real serious problem, it is best to work with a professional. Besides having an experienced, qualified person who knows what they're doing, you will also get an environment where all situations are fully controlled. Full control over the environment and stimuli allows your dog to succeed.

Because Cookie's barking at the traffic isn't a major deal to us, we are tackling it the best we can with what we have to work with. And she's doing well.

Over threshold stimulus doesn't always have to cause stress in your dog. 

Sometimes it's simply about too much stimulation. This can be particularly important when it comes to recall. The threshold aspects are the same, though.

For Cookie, a scent that is at least an hour old or older gets her curious but not to a degree where it becomes a problem. She is still aware of the world around her, including ourselves, so when we call her she can respond.

A scent that is truly fresh, half hour or less does something to her brain.

In an instant, a fuse goes, and the whole words ceases to exist. All there is is the scent and her innate drive to pursue it. At that point, you can be standing right next to her and she won't know you're there. That is something we still need to work on.

Competing stimuli

Interesting observation with Cookie is how she's affected by competing stimuli. For example, being hot on a mouse trail renders any passing traffic irrelevant, regardless of the distance, size or duration. A train could go by and she wouldn't care. Now, if I only could be as stimulating to her as a mouse ...

Further reading:
Understanding Thresholds: It's More than Under- or Over-

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  1. This is great information and something I was kind of unaware of.

  2. We are working on lowering the reaction to strangers and dogs. Distance is our friend. Boy it is time-consuming, hard to control and slow progress. Each time I think Kilo is improving, something unplanned will over stimulate him and he loses all control. XS

    1. Yes, it's not easy, particularly when the underlying emotion is strong. And unplanned encounters are very likely to cause set backs. That's why set-ups with decoy dog(s) and people are awesome, as there is full control over all aspects and things improve faster that way.

  3. Ruby's is on the very edge of her threshold just being outside, so every little thing sets her off. We have been making progress slowly...

    1. Some very strong emotions there, is she fearful?

  4. It is interesting how many different concepts are combined in training a pet. Stress is a huge problem for any kind of learning! It's so important to do what you can to keep a low-stress atmosphere at all times when learning needs to take place.

    1. I think things are getting more complicated because of two reasons
      - our expectations of our dogs are rising
      - their lives are further and further removed from what would come to them naturally

  5. I always enjoy reading blog posts where I learn something, so thank you. This was really informative for me and I can apply some of it to the cats.

    1. Our son clicker-trained his cat, so using such things for cats does seem possible.

  6. My mom's dad is okay until he hears loud noises. He has a very low threshold and my mom doesn't really know how to help.

    1. With a dog, similar strategy to the LAT could apply; starting by sounds below threshold and "changing their meaning" into a predictor of something good (treat, play, walk). Possibly it could work the same way ... ?

  7. Generally, across the street is fine. Same sidewalk gets problematic threshold-wise.

    1. I can see that. With diligent work, things like that can be fixed.

  8. Thanks for all this information! I don't have reactive issues here, but I enjoy learning all things dog =)


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