Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed

People often say that if a dog can eat, she is under threshold. While this can be a strong indicator, it’s not true 100% of the time.

A head shot of a tan dog with a black muzzle. Her eyes are brown and pupils are dilated. Her ears are pinned back. There are muscle ridges in her forehead. The skin along her jaws is drawn tight. She looks very, very stressed.
Clara is stressed and over threshold

First, let’s go over what people 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, the sympathetic nervous system response. Common physiological changes in mammals attendant to this response include:

  • dilated pupils
  • heightened respiration
  • heart rate and breathing increase
  • slowing or stopping of digestion
  • paling or flushing
  • panting
  • shaking
  • increased muscle tension
  • dilation of blood vessels for muscles; constriction elsewhere

Did you catch the one about digestion? The GI 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 dogs will not eat when they are in this state.

You can read 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 importantly, 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 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 a behavior on her own. There’s even a little tail wag in there.

I think she can eat and respond because we have rehearsed behaviors repeatedly in many 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.

Eating While Over Threshold


In the lingo of dog training, “over threshold” means an emotional state in which a dog is too stressed to be trained.

(For a more thorough discussion of the term, its meanings, and its ramifications, please see my blog post.)

A common test to see if a dog is over threshold is to offer food. In general, once the stress hormones kick in, the GI system shuts down.

Stressed dogs frequently won’t take food. But it’s important to remember that that’s a generalization.

There are exceptions. So it’s good to learn all the signs of stress in your own dog and not judge on one aspect only.

This is Clara, my feral dog, at the vet. This was her first visit after she had been spayed. She was petrified.


You can’t leave, sweetie. Can you get on your mat? That’s so good; you’re such a good girl. Yeah. You’re so good. Yeah. You’re a brave girl. You’re so brave. That was very gentle, unlike you. Can you catch it? Whoops! Such a good girl. You’re a good girl.


Thanks for watching!

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?

Clara: Relaxed vs Stressed
Clara: Relaxed vs Stressed

Thanks for viewing!

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Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

16 thoughts on “Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed

  1. My own semi-feral girl also takes treats when she’s way over threshold. It has made counterconditioning very easy. Not that I intentionally get her that stressed, but when it happens the ability to still enjoy treats brings her back faster than other dogs.

    1. That’s interesting! In some situations Clara can come back fast, but not always. Would love to hear more about your counterconditioning. We do a lot of that around here…. Thanks for posting.

  2. Great post. I’m still trying to remember to notice the dilation of my dog’s eyes and small details like that… but she is pretty good at letting us know when she’s not comfortable… such as looking up and looking away rather than do the action we are requesting (either she doesn’t want to or she doesn’t understanding what we are asking for) … she goes over threshold the minute we step into the vet’s room or into the grooming shop. She refuses food and pretty much looks like Clara, although sometimes she also seems to withdraw into herself and just tremble. I’m not sure what can help make it better in both cases.

    1. Making a connection between looking at stills and even videos and seeing this stuff in real time is a challenge for me for sure. I still don’t see most of this stuff in real time. The pupils are so obvious in the pictures but I am only just now starting to see them in real life.

      It’s hard to know how to help them when they get that far over threshold. I just try to get whatever it is over with. My dog Summer gets very scared of thunderstorms. I’d say she is dancing around threshold. But she responds well to food and touch. That’s nice for me that there is something I can do.

  3. I have a rescue German Shepherd who was living on the street prior to coming to live with us. I’ve always assumed that lack of consistent food when he was still a puppy is why he is such a voracious eater now. I have never seen him refuse food. Ever. So food is not an indicator I can use with him.

    On the one hand, this has always made training really easy since he is always so desperate for food that he figures out what I am asking for very quickly. On the other hand, I’ve been wondering lately if the whole thought of food is actually causing more stress in our training sessions. He gets so worked up and focused on the possibility of food, that maybe it would be better to use something else entirely, particularly since my primary goal with him is to help him learn to calm himself. Kind of couter-productive if the reward for self-calming gets him all excited again!

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your post on Clara since it is a subject I have been thinking about quite a bit lately. Thank you!

    1. How nice that you took in a street dog!

      That’s a tough dilemma about the arousal with food. I would be thinking about it, too! I bet you sure don’t withhold meals before you train. I’d be interested to know what you devise.

      I think Clara had kind of an opposite experience before she came to me. I know that people were leaving food out for the mother dog. So although she had every parasite there ever was, she was not underweight and didn’t appear malnourished. She also had great skills at attaining the front of the food line….

  4. Super great post and timely, in that I am doing a public presentation in the next couple of weeks on exactly this topic – stress and thresholds. May I have your permission to use your pics of Clara with stress labels in my presentation (with credit given to you, of course)? Much appreciated! Keep up the great work with your dogs!

  5. I once had to recommend euthanasia for a dog that had been in a shelter for over 1 year and had only two people that could get anywhere near her. However, when I was asked to evaluate her and I video taped it and when some people saw that she would take treats (although fearfully and never from closer than a few feet from me) I was vilified for my recommendation. I often equate dogs that are over threshold being extremely aroused and some dogs have a digestive system that gets ‘over aroused’ too.

    1. Thank you for the hard work you do, Karen. It seems that so many people want easy answers.

      I like your concept of the “over arouse” digestive system. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Hi you are so lucky to have a dog who would take treats while she is stressed and even willingly sit down and take her tail out.

    unfortunatly for me my dog (probably a border collie/golden ret mix) she is an EXTREMLY stressful dog few examples are
    1. at home she won’t let anyone who is not part of the immediate family inside the house barking and growling insanly at any cat and especially other dogs or humans trying to visit us
    2.lately she just won’t let us take her to the beach i can only assume this is because of the amount of people and dogs that are there and she is also scared of the water (what i mean by that is the she will try to pull back home the moment she understands im going in that direction and she does not give up for at all fighting at full force like her life depend on it).

    so in all these scenerios especially when she is the most fearful and stressed she will not take treats i have tried letting her smell and taste the treat but she is definitly not intrested in it in that state, only when her stress level goes somewhat lower she may accept treats.

    i have no idea how to bring her stress levels down or try to teach her to stop being scared of this place/ other people/ other dogs.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Sorry I missed your comment until now. Those are hard problems to deal with. If you are on FaceBook, you might want to join the Reactive Dogs group. People discuss and advise about ways to help dogs get over fears and stressors. What you are describing is way over my head in terms of being able to make any suggestions. Good luck with your dog. That sounds difficult for your dog and family.

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