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From Meltdowns to Breakthroughs: Understanding Thresholds

You've brought your dog to the park to work on their reactivity training, just like the trainer recommended. Keeping them at a distance, you start tossing treats as you've practiced many times before. "Look at that!" you cheerfully praise each time they glance at the jogger running by. Your dog seems perfectly relaxed - ears perky, soft body language, readily snatching up rewards. You take a careful step closer. Then without warning, they erupt in a frenzy of barks and lunges toward the now long-gone jogger, nearly yanking your arm from the socket in the process.

Stunned, you realize you completely misread your dog's rising stress signals in the moments before their aggressive “over threshold” outburst. The friendly park now feels threatening and you worry whether all this training is actually backfiring.

If only you had spotted the subtle signs of anxiety sooner, you think. I never would've stepped closer if I realized they were nearing their threshold. Now my fearful pup is even more traumatized, all this progress erased. Why is it so hard for owners to recognize rising emotions before they boil over? And how can we set dogs up for success, keeping their stimulus exposure under threshold?

These threshold moments can be confusing and disheartening for owners. You may judge the intensity very differently than your dog does in the moment. Often once dogs go over that emotional point-of-no-return, they display reactive behaviors totally unrepresentative of their true nature.

During desensitization and counterconditioning work, certified trainers emphasize carefully managing threshold levels to effect lasting change. But what does that mean in everyday language?

In order to prevent sudden reactivity, we first need to understand what thresholds actually are. Thresholds indicate the point of emotional load capacity at which a dog can no longer maintain functioning and composure. When emotions exceed a dog’s coping threshold, the autonomic nervous system takes over, causing unintentional fight/flight/freeze response disconnected from conscious choice.

Thresholds are often talked about as simply being “over” or “under”, but truly understanding them requires seeing emotional states as a fluid spectrum. Think of thresholds on a scale of 1-10. 1 being totally relaxed and calm, 5 showing some signs of stress, 8 nearing panic mode, 10 being a full blown reactive explosion. Our goal is to work the dog between 3-5 on that scale when exposing them to their trigger for training set ups.

People often just talk about visual distance when thinking about thresholds, but this is a narrow view. Triggers can activate through any of the senses - sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste. For example, a dog may see a kid on a scooter, hear shouts on the basketball court, smell steak grilling, feel unexpected petting, and taste treats all while sitting politely in a park. Each sensory input bumps their stress dial upward. Even with distance, noises travel and scents carry on the breeze. So while visibility offers some control, all the senses play a role in that emotion equation pushing a dog up the threshold scale in any environment. We must consider the complete sensory experience, not just what they directly stare at, when gauging trigger exposure. Managing multifaceted sensory input is key for threshold success.

Successfully working under a dog's threshold relies on thoughtfully controlling several training factors when exposing your dog to their trigger:


Distance refers to the physical space between your dog and the trigger. We can increase, maintain or decrease distance depending on our goals. (Remember, increasing distance doesn’t necessarily put your dog lower on the threshold scale, for some situations, increasing distance might cause your dog to go up the scale.)


Duration means how long your dog is exposed to the trigger. We can increase, maintain or decrease duration.


Intensity relates to the stimulating qualities of the trigger itself. A person standing still is usually less intense that a person jumping up or down or making noise for example. Exposure intensity must align with your dog’s current ability level.


Frequency refers to how often trigger encounters occur. Consistent, yet controlled sessions are key for progress.  We can adjust the number of exposures.

Understanding distance, duration, intensity and frequency individually is a start. But the interplay between factors is key for staying under threshold in training and everyday life. Carefully adjusting multiple dynamics simultaneously is key. If you hit a wall with one factor, adjust others to recreate the “under threshold” zone where learning happens.

The takeaway? While each variable has its own impact, it’s about finding the right mathematical equation of intensity x distance x frequency x duration tailored to your dog’s needs. Understanding these interconnected relationships takes training plans from good to great!

Determining your individual dog’s location between 1 and 10 on the threshold scale is supremely complex, suffice to say there is no universal formula. This intricate topic certainly warrants dedicated coverage. An experienced trainer can provide tremendous value in helping accurately identify your dog’s thresholds. Stay tuned for a future blog post devoted wholly to determining where your dog is on the threshold scale accurately.

In this piece, our central goal was building a thorough conceptual grasp of thresholds - that point where a dog’s emotions overwhelm their coping abilities, resulting in reactive responses. We explored the slide of stress up an imaginary scale, the role of multiple senses beyond sight, and how factors intersect to manage or override tolerance limits.

Internalizing these dynamics is important for your training set ups to be successful and actually work. Setting dogs up for success relies on this insight - theory guiding practical response.

Where to go from here? Now apply your elevated comprehension of thresholds when directly working with your dog. Seek credentialed support constructing a tailored training plan that respects emotional limits. And know progress happens when you correctly apply the techniques, on the dog's timeline. Just take it step by thoughtful step.


Seeking One-on-One Reactivity Training?

If your dog struggles with excessive barking, lunging, or aggression - whether from fear, frustration, or over-excitement - customized training can help. As an experienced certified trainer specializing in reactivity, I create science-based plans addressing your dog's unique triggers and challenges. To learn more about my personalized approach, reach out. From leash frustration to dog-dog conflicts and more, reactivity comes in many forms. But every dog deserves to feel secure facing daily life stressors. Lasting change requires commitment through setbacks, but I'll be there providing guidance each step of the way.

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