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Thresholds - recognize and respect them

How close is "too close"?

Just before that is your dog's THRESHOLD.


When your dog "tips over" in an emotional response to something in the environment, a situation, person or another animal, you have breached a threshold of tolerance.  You are "too close" or have been in the situation "too long" or have stacked "too many" stressors or distractions into your training plan.


Fear, aggression, excitement, anxiety ...


A dog who is "over threshold" may bark, lunge, growl, snap, or even bite.  A dog who is over threshold loses his mind and can't think or respond to known cues. His emotions have hijacked his thinking brain.  Before these extreme responses to stress are seen, dogs tell us they are feeling less comfortable or over-excited through displacement or "calming" signals such as looking away, looking off in the distance, sniffing, or yawning, whining, among others.  By paying attention to the subtle signs of stress, anxiety, or excitement, we can be proactive and help our dog through tricky situations where he might otherwise struggle.

Duration, distractions, distance, different places - what makes it difficult for your dog?

Iggy the French Bulldog becomes very exciteable at the fast movement and sounds of children.  His response is to pull against the leash and bark, dragging his owners toward them.  But, if he gets too close, his excitement turns to fear.  If the children notice him and move toward him, he barks and flees. In order to help him learn about children and help him behave appropriately, his owners are looking for situations to carefully expose him to children in ways that make him feel safe, build confidence and form a positive association.

The pup in the above photo is able to relax while observing children on the playground.  He feels safe.  He is far enough away that it is unlikely that the children will direct their attention toward him or come too close.  He is able to observe from a safe distance and have a positive learning experience with careful exposure to the sight, sound and smell of children.  He will leave feeling calm and safe.  A positive and pro-active socialization encounter.

Recognizing and respecting thresholds is also important for hyper-excitable and overly-friendly dogs.  Any time emotions run high, the dog's ability to contain their excitement weakens.  If your dog tips over into a barking, leaping, lunging, grabbing frenzy, you have crossed the dog's threshold - long before the dog actually lost it.  A dog is "under threshold" when he can split his attention between you and the person, animal or thing that causes an emotional response.  He can still think!

socialization distance horse.jpg
socialization distance 2.jpg
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How close is "too close"?  If you say his name, can he look at you? 
Reward that look!

If he can't switch his attention to you, you are too close or the level of distraction is too high.  Increase distance until he can.

Thresholds also come into play in basic skills training.  Your dog will have an ability threshold for distance on a stay or numbers of steps on a loose leash walking.  Once the behaviors are established and on cue, you will work to raise your dog's threshold for levels of difficulty and proximity of distractions and generalize to different places.  With a firm foundation and a rich reinforcement history, comes confidence, focus and reliability.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect Performance

The goal is to recognize your dog's fear or arousal point and stay under it, so he can be successful.  You want to ensure that the dog is rehearsing and becoming proficient at remaining calm in the face of a "trigger" rather than practicing losing his mind.   We must never push him to react so we can correct him, but strive to reach a point of calmly noticing without reacting and practice being aware of the trigger while being calm.  If you are the type of person who wants to "see if he can do it" and often feels tempted to test by setting him up at a level that could be unsuccessful, you will not build a firm foundation of confidence and safety.  Instead, your dog is practicing being upset and acting out.


Move closer when ready, and not before.  Is your dog relaxed, or not?

As your dog relaxes, you will gradually move closer.  If he begins to show concern or excitement, you will adjust your distance accordingly.


  • A relaxed dog's face is soft, his jaw and ears are relaxed.  His tail is relaxed and his weight is evenly distributed on all four feet.

  • An aroused dog's weight is forward, his face and body muscles tense and his gaze focused on the target.  He doesn't blink. His tail is high.

  • A fearful dog's weight is poised for escape.  He may be looking for an escape route.  His ears are back and his tail low.


Do not move closer unless your dog is relaxed and remains so.  Leave when he is still relaxed. 

Don't proceed forward if he is no longer relaxed.  Stop well before the dog stiffens or starts to wind up.  


Signs that you should stop or increase distance:


  • Dog's mouth closes, focuses attention on a concerning or exciting thing, ears prick.

  • Licks lips, yawns.

  • Ears flip back, brow furrows.

  • Dog stops, paw lift, air scenting.

  • Looks away, turns away or starts sniffing the ground.

  • Dog slows, moves in an arc.  Follow his lead, praise for appropriate choices.  Allow him time to
    acclimate and gather information.  When he relaxes, you may allow him to venture closer. 
    If his signals tell you he is feeling any apprehension or excitement, help him stop or move away
    to regroup.


Signs that your dog is over threshold (you missed the above signals and are in too deep):


  • Dog is strongly focused, leaning into the leash - toward the trigger, or away in attempt to flee.

  • Vocalizations - growl, bark, whine

  • Stress panting

  • Quickening of gait, body tension, neck erect, chest out, tail stiff like a flag pole or scorpion tail.

  • Lowering of body, crouched or slinking posture.

  • Darting eyes, clamped or tucked tail.

  • Bristling of fur or whiskers.


Slow is fast when it comes to helping a dog feel safe or maintain a level of self control.

Not relaxed.  Mouth closed, focused gaze.
Time to stop.

notices trigger-calm_edited.jpg


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Not relaxed.

Notice the change of position of the handler's leash hand in the photos above.  The dog is not pulling on the leash, the handler is.  If you have a dog who has blown up before, you may do this without even knowing it.  Pay attention to your behavior as much as the dog's.  Leash tension increases body tension and can escalate a dog's tipping point for an outburst.  Keep your leash slack.  If you feel the need to physically "stop" the dog before he's in trouble, YOU may be alerting him to a problem that he didn't even recognize as a problem.  Cheerful "Let's go" and increase distance if you feel yourself holding your breath and tensing the leash.

Above photo: 'not relaxed'   The differences are subtle.  There is leash tension.  Mouth has closed, there is stronger focus.  This could be the first sign that arousal levels are rising.  If your dog regularly surprises you with explosions, you could avoid them by paying close attention to the subtle signs that he is zeroing in on a scary thing. 

Relaxed and watching with calm interest. 
No leash tension, dog's weight is balanced on all four feet.  Tail, face and ears are relaxed.  Let him look for a moment and then call him to move on before you reach the threshold of "too long" or the animal or person he is watching gets closer or notices him.

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Keep him feeling safe on "dry land" where he can practice watching while feeling comfortable.

This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -
ditr_training @ -


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