Home > Animal Rescue, Cupcake, Daisy, Dog Behavior, Pet Safety > What is a dog threshold and why does it matter?

What is a dog threshold and why does it matter?

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Jack Russell Terrier SnarlingDespite what we often may think, dogs can be pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.

I’ve written plenty about their behaviors and what they mean, but one of the things I am still learning about is dog thresholds. According to Mardi Richmond at the Whole Dog Journal, a threshold is “when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another.” They might be happy one second and concerned or stressed the next. Often the stress or anxiety comes from an outside trigger, like seeing another dog or a person or even seeing a new object in their environment.

Although I had plenty of experience with dogs crossing thresholds at the animal shelter, I don’t even think I knew what the term meant back then. I just knew that some dogs would go from being relaxed and happy to lunging and barking whenever they saw another dog.

What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that the term can also be applied to dogs who go from relaxed and happy to shutting down or freezing in fear. They might be totally different emotional states, but the same thing is happening. They are crossing a threshold.

In the early days, Daisy had a low threshold for nearly everything in her environment – the car, the house, wood floors, people, noises, sudden movements, and me. Any of one of these could put her into a fearful state, but put two or more of these together and you could guarantee she would pretty much shut down, going into a nearly helpless state. Have you ever seen a dog get a vacant, empty look in their eyes? That was Daisy in the early days.

These days, Daisy has a much higher threshold on a whole lot of things in her environment, but I also know that a combination of any of her triggers could still cause her to shut down again. It’s something I always keep in mind whenever I am trying to decide whether to bring her along with me to an event or to leave her behind at home, where she will be safe. Most of the time I leave her at home, unless I know I can control the environment for her. I do the same with Cupcake as well. She has a much lower threshold for new people and activities than Daisy, but unlike Daisy who just shuts down, Cupcake’s first reaction is to flee. I just won’t put her at risk of getting lost again. She is happier at home anyways.

Understanding dog thresholds has taught me how to keep my dogs safe, but for other people it may be how to keep them calm. Knowing what they are and how they work can go a long way towards improving your relationship with your dog. I know it has with mine.

I don’t know if you’re interested, but I found a great video that explains a little more on thresholds and something called “trigger stacking.” It is really worth watching if you want to understand your dogs better.

Also check out the article from Whole Dog Journal that I mentioned above – “Across a Threshold.” It’s a really good read .

  1. September 23, 2013 at 6:59 AM

    You have to know your dogs and what they can take, their threshold. Each one is different but it is the same with humans I think.

  2. jan
    September 23, 2013 at 11:59 AM

    Dogs are very complex beings, as you say. The more we respect their differences the happier we all are.

    • Mel
      September 25, 2013 at 10:06 PM

      So agree Jan!

  3. cascadiannomads
    September 23, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    It wasn’t until living with a reactive dog that I learned about thresholds but it is important to be able to read the signs for all dogs!

    • Mel
      September 25, 2013 at 10:07 PM

      So agree. I think we often miss them with dogs who aren’t reactive. Fearful dogs often have thresholds, but I wonder how often we realize it. I am so glad Daisy taught me how to help her.

  4. September 23, 2013 at 8:18 PM

    I am very familiar with thresholds. My boy Faolan’s reactivity is improving, but I know when he is seeing red. I attended a Nicole Wilde seminar earlier this year, and found it immensely helpful.

    • Mel
      September 25, 2013 at 10:06 PM

      Oh Rebekah, I bet Nicole’s seminar was awesome. I wish I could have gone too. I am glad Faolan is improving. It takes a lot of work, but so worth it when you see progress isn’t it?

  5. September 24, 2013 at 7:39 AM

    I can see that Gretel crosses a threshold when she “see’s red” and goes from a little anxious to incessantly barking and chasing another dog at the dog park. I never thought to look for a “threshold” other times like when she goes from curious to fearful. That is much more subtle I think but I will pay some attention to see if I can notice it.

    • Mel
      September 25, 2013 at 10:02 PM

      I’ll be interested to read what you find out Jess. I am certainly paying more attention to it with all of my dogs.

  6. September 24, 2013 at 7:35 PM

    That is a great video! This is something we’re very aware of with Alma since she has some on-leash reactivity (of the exuberance variety) with other on-leash dogs. Progress is slow and steady, and it’s all about keeping below that threshold.

    • Mel
      September 25, 2013 at 9:39 PM

      Totally get that. Totally agree on keeping them below threshold. Daisy had to teach me that. I didn’t know when I first got her that it applied to fearful dogs too.

  7. September 28, 2013 at 7:58 AM

    I’m glad to know that sometimes you choose to leave your dogs home rather than put them in a situation they might be stressed about. Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t take the dogs more places, and that they are such homebodies. But Kobi is really the only one who does fine in different situations, so he goes places the girls don’t get to. But I’ve just always felt like if they are happier at home, it is not such a bad thing.

    • Mel
      September 29, 2013 at 10:07 PM

      Jan – I leave them home a lot when I know they will be stressed. I just don’t want them to be freaked out. I feel guilty too, but after losing Cupcake for 12 days, I know that feeling guilty os better than feeling so hopeless and scared. A lesson learned for me.

      I would bet yours are happier at home too.

  8. October 3, 2013 at 10:46 PM

    I try to speak to and pet my dog when I see her approaching a threshold. Anxiety, anger, etc. It seems to work but I worry that I’m encouraging or nurturing her flipping out.

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