If you've ever felt like your dog experiences "tunnel vision," overwhelming excitement, or unpredictable reactions, this topic is especially important for you.
What does “threshold” mean?
Put simply, the term “threshold” in the dog training world most often refers to an emotional tipping point between comfort and overwhelm.
When a dog crosses this threshold, the sympathetic nervous system is becoming engaged. Adrenaline is released and the dog is experiencing a host of physiological changes; heart rate and blood pressure increases, breathing quickens, appetite dwindles, and the body is preparing for action (or freezing). These changes can happen in response to a perceived threat, but many of the same effects also occur when the dog is flooded with "positive" excitement.
UNDER threshold: The dog feels safe and comfortable, is not concerned with the stimuli in the environment, and would be likely to respond to known cues.
AT threshold: The dog is becoming concerned (or alert) about the stimuli in the environment. If stimuli become less intense or if the handler steps in to help with management, the dog should still be able to readily deescalate and calm down.
OVER threshold: The concern or alertness has escalated into a reaction. The dog is feeling overwhelmed with stress or excitement. The dog is less likely to respond to known cues and may not register the handler's efforts to help. This dog needs to be removed from the situation so that they can deescalate. It is likely to take some time to help them calm back down.
Why is this topic important/relevant for my dog?
Whether you’re a new puppy parent or are working through intense behavior concerns with an adult dog, you should absolutely learn how threshold impacts your dog.
Understanding and respecting threshold is key for:
Progressing your training at an optimal pace
Low-risk, high-reward training
Prevention and treatment of unwanted or unsafe behaviors
Great decision-making (for the humans AND the dogs) in training
When dogs are experiencing strong emotions, their feelings often cloud judgement and can create a sense of “tunnel vision.” Dogs who are OVER threshold are expending much of their mental energy just to cope with the stimuli in front of them. OVER threshold = OVERwhelmed!
This leaves them with an impaired ability to respond to known cues or to learn the things we’re hoping to teach them. They are more likely to act “impulsively” in these moments and to react without taking time to think things through.
In training, we really want to set dogs up for success! We work to moderate the intensity of the environment so that the dog is able to be in the right frame of mind for a proper learning experience. We absolutely need the dog to be able to think clearly as we’re training.
Example: For a puppy who is afraid of vacuums, I might start by desensitizing the sound of the vacuum from the other room rather than turning it on right next to the puppy.
Example: For a dog who becomes overwhelmed with excitement when pet by strangers, I might choose to pet for only very short durations at a time so that they aren’t getting worked up.
Example: For a dog who is reactive toward other dogs, I might ensure that other dogs are at a large distance (or not present at all) when we first get started in training.
Signs that dog is AT or OVER threshold
All dogs will experience OVER threshold moments in life, even when we take care to prevent this. Here are some of the common behaviors you may observe when a dog is AT or OVER threshold:
Loss of interest in treats, toys, or training.
If taking treats, may take them more roughly.
Panting, huffing, or other changes in breathing.
Weight carried in a forward posture on front legs, or far backward onto back legs.
Excessive barking, whining, or growling at stimuli.
Piloerection (hair standing up on back)
Becoming less responsive to known cues.
Face looks tense, mouth may be tightly closed or open with panting.
Fixed gaze toward stimuli, with stiff body.
Changes in tail posture, may be held very low/pulled into body or held high into the air like a flag.
Pulling or lunging toward stimulus OR frantically moving away.
Ears are alert or may be pinned back.