Many dog behavior that humans experience problems with, are behaviors which I call: emotionally explosive behavior. During that behavior the dog is in a state where it is no longer able to respond to your cues.
Some examples of potentially explosive behaviors where the dog is most likely in a positive emotional state:
Some examples of potentially explosive behaviors where the dog is most likely in a negative emotional state:
All of the above are behaviors in which the dog is experiencing high arousal or distress (the stress response has gone 'in overdrive' at this time) and the dog is showing behavior that is driven strongly by emotional responses within the brain. If you want to read more about the many types of emotions that could be ‘driving’ dog behavior, please read this article, click here.
In this state, it is not possible for the dog to process any type of information that is not related to their current emotional state. All focus is on that particular survival mechanism (i.e. escaping, or attacking or eating or hunting). When the dog is in such a state, this is also known as: being over threshold.
Learning over threshold versus learning below threshold
It is often claimed that dogs who are over threshold are not capable of learning. This is not accurate. In fact, research has shown that memories of events that triggered emotion, are stronger than memories of events that triggered little to no emotion. Emotional events dig a deep neurological pathway within the dog brain, because the body considers them to be of high importance (for survival).
Some forms of training involve the dog being over threshold (many forms of extreme obedience, agility or bite work, in example, involve the dog being over threshold).
So, why do so many trainers and behaviorists promote therapy and training below threshold? This is because they most likely mean to explain that the dog needs to be able to process new information and the dog needs to have room within its nervous system, to create new, different responses within a certain context. In order to achieve this, the dog will need to be able to process information which is not related to the highly explosive and emotional behavior that those trainers are trying to prevent and change. In order to achieve change within certain contexts (that trigger an unwanted emotional response which, for the dog is higly functional), it is necessary that the dog is not experiencing that highly aroused state. In those cases, you will need to start training/therapy below threshold.
If you want to change a dogs response within certain context in which it could become emotionally distressed, then you may need to set up an environment in which exposure to that context can be controlled in such a way that the dog remains below threshold and open for learning new, alternative responses/behavior while also building neutral or positive associations.
While the dog is below threshold, therapy like desensitization, habituation and counter conditioning could have a much higher success rate.
An emotional switch can still happen over threshold
Some forms of training, in example during counter conditioning, could also involve keeping or bringing the dog over threshold, but while doing so, switching the emotion from negative to positive. An example could be: dog is barking and lunging towards a trigger, the handler then holds nice smelling food in front of the dog's nose (switching the dog's emotion from negative towards positive expectations), once the dog has shifted attention (and stopped barking and lunging), the handler drops the food on the ground for the dog to eat. If this dog stopped barking and starts to eat, then the dog is at that time switching from emotion and from behavior, while most likely still remaining over threshold. According to that dog's brain, gaining access to food has then become more important for its survival, than barking at the trigger. Rehearsal and good timing, could cause the dog to shift its behavior and emotional response, by building a strong positive association with the trigger.
In dog training and behavior therapy there is no 'one size fits all'
Each dog can have different preferences, different ranges of resilliance, different coping mechanisms and a different recovery speed which can change under different circumstances. Each dog may therefore have a different 'tipping point' when it comes to crossing that 'emotional threshold line' (i.e. the distance towards triggers or the volume level of sounds).
If you are having problems with behavior which seems to be emotionally explosive (i.e. the dog seems to become ‘shut down’, is no longer able to respond to your cues or not taking food, etc..), then always consult a professional who can analyse the behavior and create treatment options which best suit that individual dog.
© LotsDogs | Written by Liselot Boersma, dog welfare & behavior consultant (PgDip CABW) and owner of LotsDogs, february 2020. Copy paste of images or text is forbidden. Sharing the URL of this website is very much appreciated. Many thanks in advance.
Based in the Netherlands, Westbeemster
Dog Welfare & Behaviour consultant