Thresholds, Dials, and Fear: Managing Your Dog’s Stress Levels

12311071_643009942506356_7194640116610784985_nImagine a wall of dials.

Each represents a source of stress for your dog, and can be turned high or low, depending on the day. One dial might be your dog’s internal state. Another might be the environment. Yet another might be the availability of positive reinforcers. Yet others might be mental stimulation, physical exercise, and pharmacological interventions. These dials can be specific; if your neighbor is remodeling his house, the noise of jackhammers and construction equipment could certainly be a dial turned on highest volume for your dog (and you). If you live in a thunderstorm-prone area, that dial could turn up or down depending on the day and season.

When too many of the dials are turned up to full volume, your dog may refuse food, display signs of stress and fear, and be unable to learn effectively due to the amount of triggering stimuli coming his way. In dog training, we call this state of being “over threshold.” The goal in any training protocol is to reduce stress so that the dog remains “under threshold.” In other words, the dog remains one hundred percent, no-holds-barred OK in his environment. Under threshold does not mean the dog is mostly fine. Under threshold does not mean the dog is nervous but hanging in there. Under threshold does not mean the dog is triggered but shut down or not reacting. Under threshold means exactly that: the dog is under the threshold at which things start to become uncomfortable and when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in with fight, flight and freeze reactions. Under threshold means no fear.

One of the toughest aspects of training can be managing the dog’s environment so he experiences less stress and stays under threshold. While the number of stress-inducing dials can be endless, your ability to control each of these dials is not. After all, you can’t control the weather, your neighbor’s construction schedule, or the off-leash dog that may choose to bolt toward you and your leashed reactive dog on a hiking trail. None of us, barring a clinical or theoretical set-up, is able to keep all dials turned to low all of the time.

This doesn’t mean training is impossible. It simply means we have to get creative, remain flexible, and work with the dog and environment in front of us. When you see a stressor turning on high volume for your dog, are there other areas where you can dial down stress? For example, you notice a thunderstorm approaching. You know you can’t control this dial, and if your dog is fearful of thunderstorms, you know your dog will be stressed. But what dials can you control?

  • Can you start a desensitization and counterconditioning protocol to storms so that your dog’s stress lessens over time?
  • Can you speak to your veterinarian about potential pharmacological interventions that will reduce the intensity of your dog’s panic?
  • In the short term, can you stay home with your dog so he’s not alone, play soothing music, provide a safe space with lots of blankets in a room away from windows in your house?

Living with a fearful or anxious dog means continually assessing the wall of dials and adjusting the ones we can so that at any given time, we increase the chances that our dogs are less stressed and are able to to cope with what the environment throws their way.

For more information on thresholds and fear:

Eileen Anderson:

Debbie Jacobs:

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Positively Expert: Maureen Backman

Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town Dog Training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project.


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