People often say that a way to tell whether your dog is “over threshold” is whether she will eat or not. While this can be a strong indicator, it’s not true 100% of the time.
First let’s go over what people generally mean by “over threshold.” 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.
A stress reaction can develop into a full “fight or flight” response, that is, the sympathetic nervous system 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.
You can real more about “thresholds” here, but in the meantime I want to show you something.
Taking food is an easy test for stress, but it’s not definitive on its own. There are other reasons a dog may refuse food, and most important, some dogs will still take food when very stressed. That’s what I want to show you.
My formerly feral dog Clara is one of those dogs who will eat when she is almost out of her mind with fear. In the movie below, taken when she was about a year old, she was at the vet’s. It was the first time she had been back there since being 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 happy, safe exposures to the human world 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, but she is still eating the treats 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.
I think she is able to eat and respond because we have rehearsed behaviors over and over again in many different environments, and taking the treat is actually a behavior, too! Also, our bond is very strong, and she has a lot of 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. Just drop me a line 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!
- Dog Facial Expressions: Stress
- Thresholds in Dog Training
- My Dog Refuses Food Away from Home
- But He Was Wagging His Tail!
Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson