Thresholds: When dogs reach their emotional edge

Originally posted on Mutt About Town.

IMG_2188Until recently, I never thought I’d utter the phrase “Dog training is just like yoga.” However, in researching fear in dogs and the best practices for treating it, I’ve found a distinct parallel.

After countless yoga sessions of stretching and twisting, I’ve encountered the term “edge” quite frequently. In yoga, you are encouraged to work toward your physical edge in a pose – the moment when your muscles and joints tell you, “That’s it, this is as far as I’m going to go.” If you move into your edge too quickly, you’ll definitely experience discomfort. You might even experience injury in the form of a strained or pulled muscle, which will impede your overall progress. But if you acknowledge your edge, concentrate on it, and move into it gradually with proper breathing and alignment, you end up going deeper into a pose and opening tightened muscles.

Edges in yoga are similar to a concept in dog training known as the “threshold,” and you’ll encounter it often in training publications and this blog. When dealing with fearful and anxious dogs, the threshold is similar to the physical edge in yoga. Once a dog goes over his threshold, learning shuts down, the emotion takes over, and harm occurs. However, by knowing a dog’s threshold, working through it gradually, and ensuring a dog never crosses it, dogs overcome their fears and anxieties, much like conquering a difficult yoga posture.

To understand the concept of a threshold, it’s important to understand the science behind fear. Fear is a reflexive response, an automatic reaction to a stimulus. When a dog encounters a stimulus that signals danger, whether through a learned association or an innate one, two different systems in the dog’s brain enter the playing field. The autonomic nervous system sends information to that prompt physiological changes like increased heart rate and increased breathing rate, enabling the “fight or flight” capabilities in the dog’s body. In the second system, a fearful stimulus triggers the activation of the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands), releasing cortisol and adrenaline that further assist the body during “fight or flight” situations. (Jordan, 2012).

Emotionally charged situations inhibit a dog’s normal learning processes because they cause the brain to focus solely on the arousing event. A fear-inducing stimulus overrides the brain’s GABA, a nerve-calming neurotransmitter, thus leading to emotional reactivity. (Bond, 2008). It also activates the HPA axis quite rapidly, nullifying any chance of in-the-moment counterconditioning. (Jordan, 2012). While frustrating in the moment, this makes sense from a biological standpoint; dangerous situations require immediate attention for survival.

With all of this activity, we can hardly expect a dog to focus on an obedience command or to “get over it.” It’s simply not in his biology. What’s more, stress hormones stay in the system long after the fearful stimulus is gone, resulting in long-term effects on training and learning.

When a dog crosses his threshold, the above biological processes in the body kick in. Each dog has a different threshold, and his threshold can vary depending on the stimulus. For example, one dog’s threshold for encountering strangers could be 10 yards, whereas another dog’s could be 3. Theses distances could be reversed if the dogs were presented with a different stimulus, such as an oncoming dog.

The effects of fear can also be cumulative. If dog is presented with a fearful stimulus over time that is never addressed through proper training, or worse, has encountered aversive training methods in combination with the fearful stimulus, the dog may go from relatively little intensity to a full-on growl, lunge or bite. Why? Because aversive techniques that suppress the behaviors signifying fear do nothing to change a dog’s behavior and instead serve to reinforce a dog’s fear of the stimulus. By suppressing behaviors such as growling, snarling or barking, and without removal of the fearful stimulus, the dog is left with only the most intense and damaging option: biting.

As James O’Heare writes in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, fear thresholds can be raised or lowered, but not done away with altogether. “Aggression, which is present in all individuals, is never cured. Rather, the important issue is what evokes aggressive behavior and whether active attempts are made to change the dog’s aggression thresholds” (98).

The best way to recognize your dog’s thresholds is through understanding his body language. Dogs who are under stress may show any combination of the following behaviors:

  • low appetite
  • shallow, rapid panting
  • low focus ability
  • sweaty  paws
  • yawning
  • vomiting or diarrhea
  • shaking
  • excessive thirst, grooming, or sleeping
  • compulsive behaviors
  • confusion
  • increased urination or defecation
  • whale eye (where you can see the whites of the eyes)
  • stiffness
  • reactivity
  • dilated pupils
  • self-mutilation

These behaviors are a signal to create distance between your dog and the fear-causing stimulus. View them as a message from your dog saying, “Hey, I’m really uncomfortable, help get me out of here!”

At some point, every dog is going to cross his threshold. It happens and isn’t a catastrophe if handled the right way. In the moment, take control of the situation by getting your dog away from the stimulus, luring with treats and praise. Once you’ve gotten your dog to a calm location, give him a chance to calm down. Remember, the biological processes mentioned above are still at work, and your dog’s body needs time to normalize. Try to remember exactly what happened so you can identify what caused your dog to go over his threshold, and work on a plan should you encounter that situation again.

Remember, fear generalizes and can bleed into other behavior areas. If you notice your dog going over threshold, it’s important to get in touch with a dog trainer to set your dog up for success and to prevent the fear from worsening.

– Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.

References:

Bond, C. (2008). Neurology of learning: An understanding of neurology as the basis of learning and behavior in the domestic dog. Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 2(1), 50–96.

Jordan, Bethany. “Fear and Anxiety: When Medication Can Help Build Bridges.” Barks From The Guild, June 2012. 

O’Heare, James. (2007). Aggressive Behavior in Dogs. Ottawa, Canada: DogPsych.

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Thresholds: When dogs reach their emotional edge

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