What are threshold levels and why are they important in dog behavior modification? Learn how to identify threshold levels and how to stay below them.

If you ever talked to a dog trainer or a dog behavior professional, you may have heard the term “threshold”. What does this term really mean? You may have also heard the terms “over the threshold” or “under the threshold” or “sub-threshold”. From a behavioral perspective, the word, threshold, defines an imaginary line where a stimulus is intense enough to produce an effect on the dog.

Understanding Threshold Levels in Dogs

Threshold, therefore, would be the exact point where the behavior starts breaking down. The exact definition of this term, however, may differ from one trainer to another and tends to be a bit blurred and subjective. Generally, when below the threshold, a dog appears to be calm or, at least, under control. The dog’s cognitive functions, overall, seem to be capable of functioning at this point, and often the dog is capable of taking treats. Over the threshold, is where the dog starts losing it; treats are pretty much irrelevant and the dog appears to be out of control.

If a dog is fearful of bikes, he would, therefore, be over the threshold when he gets tense and starts barking and lunging, whereas, he is under the threshold when he appears under control and capable of obeying commands and taking treats. The threshold level is basically the line in between these two extremes, where desirable and undesirable behaviors meet in between.

Understanding Threshold Levels in Dogs

Understanding Threshold Levels in Dogs

The Importance of Determining Threshold Levels

Determining threshold levels is important because once over the threshold, dogs go into a fight or flight mode which is linked to survival. In this state of mind, learning does not take place because there are more important factors at stake. One problem with threshold levels is that according to Leslie McDevitt in the book “Control Unleashed“, threshold levels are “fluid and contextual”. What this means is that they can vary.

A dog may do fine ten feet away from a trigger one day, and then the next, he may be reactive at five feet. Why is that? Various factors may come into play. For instance, the dog may be more stressed one day or the sounds may be amplified due to weather conditions, or the number of people around may be making the dog more nervous, and so forth. It is imperative, therefore, to learn how to “gauge the dog’s threshold and work under it” as Leslie further explains.

Understanding threshold levels are, therefore, very important when it comes to working on modifying dog behavior. It can really make the difference between a successful outcome or failure. Good management of threshold levels is part of a good desensitization program where doing it right leads to desensitization, and therefore, improvement, and doing it wrong leads to failure, and therefore, sensitization.

How To: Threshold Training