Over threshold. Have you heard the term?
In dog (and other animal) training, “over threshold” is used to describe the point at which a dog undergoes physiological changes that comprise a state of stress. The state of being over threshold is not conducive to being trained, and positive reinforcement centered trainers will try to get their dog out of that state before trying to teach a behavior or use classical conditioning.
I have an extensive post on the definition of “threshold” in the works, but in the meantime I want to show you something.
A stress reaction can develop into a full “fight or flight” response. Common physiological changes in mammals attendant to this response include:
- dilated pupils
- heightened respiration
- heart rate and breathing increase
- digestion slows or stops
- paling or flushing
- increased muscle tension
- dilation of blood vessels for muscles; constriction elsewhere
Did you catch the one about the GI system? Digestive processes slow or shut down. So it makes sense that a common test that people use to check dogs’ stress levels is to see if they will take food. In a state of heightened stress, blood flow to the GI system is limited as the body prepares for action. Many or even most dogs will not eat when they are in this state.
Taking food is an easy test for stress, but it’s not definitive on its own. There are other reasons a dog may take or refuse food, and most important, some dogs will still take food when very stressed. That’s what I want to show you.
My feral dog Clara is one of those. In the movie below, taken more than a year ago, she was at the vet’s. It was the first time she had been back there since she was spayed. Before that she had been fairly calm at the vet’s, all things considered, but we lost all that after her spay. I have been working on her socialization since she came to me, but the usual steps one takes to teach a dog to be calm or even happy at the vet are beyond her, so we just try to get through the visit as quickly as possible and with as little handling as can be managed.
In the video you can see all of the visible stress signals listed above, except that she is still eating the treats that I offer. You can also see her respond to cues, and even in one case offer behavior on her own. There’s even a little tail wag in there.
To answer the question in the title, I think she is able to eat and respond because we have rehearsed behaviors over and over again in many different environments, our bond is very strong, and probably because of some innate resilience. If she didn’t have that, she would never have come in my door two years ago.
However, I would never attempt to train her while she was in such a state. I would just use food as a distraction and help her get through it and out of the situation as quickly as possible.
By the way, the video clips are the source of the still photos I have previously published with stress signals labeled. Those photos are available for private or professional/educational use. I will also make the two brief clips that are in the movie available if anyone wants to use them. Just drop me a line in the sidebar or message me on the eileenanddogs FaceBook page.
How about your dogs? What are the easiest ways to tell they are stressed? Or the most reliable? Do you look for combinations of things?
Thanks for viewing! Coming up:
- But I Want to Use ALL the Tools in My Toolbox!
- What You Reinforce is What You Get
- Threshold: Let’s Work on Defining It
- Clara’s Rules
- OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?
- But He Was Wagging His Tail!