Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ethics and Thresholds

It’s practically impossible to talk about reactive dogs without discussing thresholds. Thresholds are typically defined as the line between where a dog is able to learn and control himself and where the dog has a total meltdown and is completely unable to function. This is a fine working definition; it’s also a huge oversimplification of an extremely complex concept.

First off, there isn’t any place a dog can go to in their head where they’re not capable of learning. They may not be learning what we want, but they’re always learning something. Such is the danger of training dogs. Learning occurs primarily in two areas of the brain. Ideally, we’d like dogs to stay in their frontal lobes while we train. In people, we know that the frontal lobe is where personality and empathy live. It’s also where analytical thinking and reasoning occur. For dogs, it's where complex tasks like “sit” and “stay” and “fetch me a beer” are created.

The second area where learning occurs is the amygdala, an area in the hindbrain. This little node is responsible for two things: fight or flight. Having these two responses centered so closely together is why fear and aggression are so intertwined. The amygdala allows for very fast, very sloppy thinking that evolved to save the animal’s life. It’s not terribly helpful for teaching dogs not to flip out  in the presence of their triggers. It’s also responsible for triggering floods of stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, that can adversely affect dogs for days. The grey area between the frontal lobe and the amygdala is where the dog’s threshold lives. While working reactive dogs around their triggers, they are rarely entirely in their frontal lobes - but if you’re doing it right, neither are they entirely in their hindbrains. There’s a lot of grey matter between the two.

Of course, there’s more to thresholds that what’s going on in the dog’s brain. Triggers play a huge part in shifting the dog’s learning from the frontal lobe to the amygdala. For Rubi, the simplified version of her trigger is “other dogs.” But here again, there’s a huge amount of variability. In a classroom setting with other non-reactive dogs, she’s pretty capable up to a distance of about five to ten feet. Outside with dogs in yards, she can usually manage about fifteen feet without putting her so far into her hindbrain that she can’t focus on me. Dogs on leash are okay up to about thirty feet. And all of these variables are affects by the energy level of the other dog, the amount of exercise Rubi has had that day, what kind of treats I have on me, the phases of the moon, and the time of the month. Triggers are as complex as the thresholds they affect, layering stimuli and variables to push they dogs further or closer to the frontal lobe or amygdala.

So if we look at the threshold not as a line to avoid crossing, but as a continuum that our reactive dogs constantly live on, we must consider the question: how much pressure is okay? How much stress is acceptable? How much do we allow our dogs to live in their hindbrains?

Lately, I’ve been struggling a great deal with these questions. No so much with Rubi, who bounces back from stress easily, and seems to enjoy the adrenaline rush she gets from visiting her amygdala. But with Maus, most definitely, and more recently with Jai. Jai’s issues are twofold. The first is his worried nature. I hesitate to call it “anxiety” since this implies a more serious issue than I feel is warranted. It doesn’t interfere with his day-to-day activities, he’s not constantly on edge or hyper vigilant. He’s just a little extra concerned about his environment.

Jai’s second issue is a touch of barrier frustration around other dogs. Again, I hesitate to call it reactivity because it just doesn’t seem that serious. It’s a little whining, a lot of staring, and an inability to focus well on anything else while in the presence of a new dog he can’t meet. It’s certainly nothing I wouldn’t expect from a two year old pit bull that no one has worked with. It’s also not a terribly disruptive behavior, and would be perfectly acceptable in a pet dog. If I wasn’t ridiculously anal about my dog’s behavior, I’d probably let it slide.

Overall, both issues have been coming along nicely. Jai’s focus on walks is improving. He wags his tail willingly enough that I’ve stopped keeping count. He wants to go meet new people on walks, and although he’ll still send out a few calming signals if people get a little "rdue," it’s nothing that Average Joe Dog Petter would notice. Jai’s mostly taken over Rubi’s position as vehicle co-pilot to help him get exposure without forcing him to interact with anyone/thing. With everything else that’s been going so well, I decided it was time to enroll Jai in a class. Aware of his issues, I talked to several people, trying to decide whether to place him into an easy-going, quiet, normal level one class, or into a class meant for more special needs dogs. After a lot of thought and consideration and research, I enrolled him in a level one class that I thought would meet our needs.

Yeah, that was a mistake.

I hate this stage of getting to know a dog and his thresholds. It’s like sticking a finger in an open wound to see how deep it goes. It’s really pretty painful for everyone. You don’t know how much pressure a dog can handle unless you push them. And sometimes, you can accidentally push them too hard.

Jai was “under threshold” in the simplified sense of the word. But he was seriously over stimulated. Stress panting, whining, difficulty concentrating, pulling toward the other dogs. He could take treats and follow instructions, but he wasn’t really learning anything – at least, not the things I wanted him to learn. We were spending a huge amount of time fighting with each other, and then he look at me with those big, anxious amber, eyes, and I thought, my god, this is horrible. I have to stop this.

So we left, thirty minutes into class. We thanked the teacher for her time, and I explained that I was placing an amount of stress on my dog that I felt was unacceptable, and that we would not be back. The teacher was very supportive, if a little confused (after all, he wasn’t over threshold), and offered to have us transferred into a special needs class. So that is what we will be doing instead.

I could have staid the course and kept Jai in that class, and in the long run, it probably would have been okay. He would’ve learned to operate under that level of stress because Jai is a good dog and because I don’t totally suck as a trainer. But the cost was too high. Too much anxiety, too much stress, too much misery. Jai deserves a trainer who isn’t in constant conflict with him and an environment that will support his frontal lobe. We’ll take the special needs class, and we will come out stronger than we are now because I have supported Jai instead of forcing him to conform to my idea of what his behavior should be. In the long run – and the short run – we will be happier and our relationship will be stronger.

And - as always - I am grateful to have the opportunity to fix my mistakes.  

Photo by Paige Reyes. 


  1. Love the collar! Where did you get it from?

  2. Thanks! Rubi's collar is from

  3. I've been having to think about thresholds a lot lately with Koira. I recently decided to try using medication to help keep her under threshold in situations that I can not control, so that I have an opportunity to work with her on learning how I would like her to behave. It seems to be working really well (I did a post about our progress earlier this week, if you are interested in more details).

  4. How wonderful that you recognized that even though Jai was operant, that his stress levels were too high. This is one of my largest issues with clients...trying to educate them on the levels of stress their dogs are experiencing and empathizing with them enough to make the decision that is best for the dog.