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Staying Under Threshold

First off, what do I mean when I talk about ‘Staying Under Threshold’?

Well basically I’m talking about that fine line between my dog being stressed or aroused but able to cope, and then the tipping point where they can’t cope and are just responding to a situation without being able to process information.

For example a dog being walked on a lead that starts barking crazily when it sees another dog approaching – nothing the owner says or does can distract it from barking and going mad, the dog is unable to respond as it has gone over its stress threshold.

Lots of the dogs that I see for 1-2-1 consultations and home visits are dogs that are regularly going above their stress threshold, and owners quite rightly struggle with what to do about it.

Now first off it’s worth addressing the fact that stress can be both a positive (excited) or negative (frightened) experience. And dogs that spend a lot of time being stressed on either end of the spectrum, are likely to be more reactive in new or unusual situations than dogs who are calmer and steadier personalities.

And whilst personality has a part to play, a dogs behaviour will also be influenced by other external factors which are also worth investigating – such as diet, exercise, daily routine and mental stimulation. ‘Problem’ behaviours often have their roots elsewhere and training alone won’t always provide a solution if these other areas aren’t addressed at the same time.

What can you do with a dog who has a trigger for going over threshold?

Different dogs have different triggers that push them over threshold. For agility dogs that struggle to contain their excitement, their trigger might be watching another dog running around a course or being at a show. For a dog that is frightened of livestock, their trigger might be the sight or smell of livestock close by, or a horse and rider coming down a path.

Our aim is to desensitise (make them less sensitive) our dogs by careful training alongside low level presentation of their triggers, gradually building them up to a point where they can still cope and respond to our directions even when faced with high level distractions.

I specifically describe the training as ‘careful’ because we need to be able to read our dogs body language and calming signals effectively in order to ensure that they are comfortable and happy at every step along the training journey. When we start a desensitisation process our aim is to avoid the dog being in a position where it can’t cope as this quite often takes us back to the start of the process with a bit of a bump!

Creating a desensitisation plan

Create a series of steps – write down a list of 1-10 stages that gradually increase in difficulty for your dog. For example, for a dog that is frightened of horses and riders whilst out walking it might look something like this:

  1. Get hold of something smelling of horses – perhaps stroke a horse with an old sock. Train at home whilst the smell is around and pair it with good rewards.
  2. Repeat stage one but this time in the garden or out on a walk.
  3. If you can, see about using a horses stable as a training area – with no horses around, do an easy training session pairing the increased smell of horses with good rewards.
  4. Find a field where you can work a good distance away from horses in the next field. With your dog on a lead do a training session with lots of lovely rewards.
  5. Ping pong the distance you’re working at – move closer, and then go further away again.
  6. If you can, have someone controlling the horse in the field and move your training to alongside the fence line of the horses field. You’re looking to avoid the horses popping their heads over the fence and startling or worse, frightening your dog. If you can’t, make sure to position your body between your dog and the fence line and horses.
  7. With one horse on a head collar and under control and your dog on a lead, move your training into the field with the horse. Start at a long distance away.
  8. Ping pong the distance you’re working at – move closer, and then go further away again.
  9. Ask for the horse to be led along on its head collar, and with your dog on a lead walk your dog alongside them – you and the horse handler putting yourselves between the two animals.
  10. Practice recalls with your dog on a long line and harness (don’t forget to wear gloves!) with the horse at a short distance away.

Before moving on to the next stage you’re looking for the dog to tell you that they are completely comfortable and happy – if in any doubt, stick at an easier stage for longer. Much better that than undoing all your previous good work by rushing through the stages 🙂

Do you struggle with an over-reactive dog? What specific challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them? Comment below, would love to hear from you! 🙂

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