Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.
Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a complete script of the video; or expand the audio (only) transcript below the video.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Threshold Movie Script

[Dogs barking]


Have you ever heard a dog trainer use the term “over threshold” and wondered what it meant?

A threshold is the point or level at which something begins or changes. That’s the standard dictionary definition. But the interesting thing is that there are actually three physiological and psychological thresholds that are important when we are training our animals.

The first threshold we need to know about is the sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here’s a definition: “The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.” Have you ever heard the term, “threshold of hearing?” Right now during this slide I am playing a high frequency hum. Can you hear it? If not, it is under your threshold of hearing for that frequency. If you can hear it, it is over the threshold.

The sensory threshold is involved when our dogs are able to see, hear, or smell something new in their environment.

Another threshold is the threshold of reactivity or fear. This is the one people usually mean when they say their dog is over threshold. The most general definition of this threshold is the point at which the sympathetic nervous system responds when the animal is afraid. This causes chemical changes in the body and overt behaviors usually falling into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.

Dogs who are aggressing are generally over the threshold of fear. Here are two other examples of dogs over that threshold.

[vet clinic noises]


She’s panting, but it’s not hot.

She’s hyper vigilant.

Trying to escape, or hide.

And trembling.

This dog is practically paralyzed with fear.

But there’s one more threshold, and it’s located behaviorally between the other two. If one threshold is where the dog sees something, and another is where the dog freaks out about it, what’s in between?

The point at which the thing becomes aversive, where the dog starts to be uncomfortable with it.  This could be called the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Here is an example of a dog in a situation where a stimulus is over the threshold of aversiveness. In other words, she is stressed about something in her environment, but so far she is holding it together.

[Neighborhood noises: siren in distance, children talking, birds, a sudden thump]


She repeatedly licks her lips and looks behind her.

She’s responding to my cues, but she’s worried about the noises.

In my webinar on thresholds in dog training, I made diagrams of these thresholds, and discussed where each of our common training protocols falls among the thresholds. Here is a summary of those diagrams.

The black line represents distance from or intensity of the stimulus.

All three of the protocols discussed here take place over the threshold of stimulus perception, since the animal has to perceive the stimulus to learn about it.

The combination of desensitization and counterconditioning is correctly practiced under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Protocols that use negative reinforcement straddle the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The animal is exposed to the stimulus at an aversive level, and escape from the aversive level of the stimulus is used as a negative reinforcer for appropriate behaviors.

The closest proximity to the aversive stimulus may be more or less than I show here; the important point is that negative reinforcement protocols have to cross the threshold of stimulus aversiveness to work.

Flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear.

The thresholds aren’t always spaced out nicely. For example, if the threshold of perception and the threshold of aversiveness are very close together in space, a trainer using desensitization/counter conditioning would probably not use distance as the initial way to keep the stimulus non-aversive. The trainer would probably use a different form of the stimulus first. This configuration of the thresholds is probably common with wild animals.

Likewise, if the threshold of stimulus aversiveness and the threshold of fear are very close together, a negative reinforcement protocol would be very difficult to perform without risking flooding.

Finally, the thresholds move because of environmental factors, the animal’s stamina and psychological state, and of course as we train. This is what we hope will happen as we train.

For more information on thresholds, please see the links to my webinar and blog in the video description. Thanks for watching!

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

28 thoughts on “Thresholds: The Movie

  1. Pingback: Threshold Video
  2. Hi Eileen.
    I would certainly recommend your webinar on the subject to anyone interested in the topic of this video.
    I have tried for myself to distinguish between the word “aversive” as used in ordinary language .. and an “Aversive” in the technical sense of a stimulus that on removal will reinforce behaviour/s. Do you consider that these are the one and same thing?
    If they were not, would you have any comment on how separate they might be?
    Thanking you,
    Paul McGee

    1. Thanks, Paul, for the kind words about the webinar.

      I think the term aversive is actually closer in technical and common usage meanings than a lot of other terms (like “punishment”). Paul Chance’s definition is “aversives [are] those things an organism strives to avoid; they are commonly described as painful, noxious, or unpleasant.” I think that’s pretty close to the common usage. Do you? I’ve seen some definitions that stipulated that they had to be things that the organism would “work” to avoid. (Not much different from “strive,” really.)

      I’ve been in a discussion lately about whether negative punishment can technically said to include an aversive. (Would love to hear from a behavior analyst here about how the terminology is usually handled.) In the book, “Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application” by Konig, in the section on punishment by Azrin and Holz, they use the expression “aversive properties” in such a way that it might apply to negative punishment. I’m still reading about that.

      Good question! I hope my speculations were helpful.

      1. has a simple and useful definition of “aversive” in their glossary:

        “Any circumstance or event that causes pain, fear, or emotional discomfort.”

        Note that just as the dog decides the value of a reward, the dog decides the degree of an aversive. Some dogs don’t like to be petted by strangers–others love it. The same action is a reward for one learner and an aversive for another.

      2. BTW, Skinner defined both positive and negative punishment as having aversive effects. For a 21st century look at these issues, Dr. Murray Sidman’s COERCION AND ITS FALLOUT is well worth reading. Kathy Sdao highly recommends Sidman’s book, and says it caused her to think very differently about both negative punishment and negative reinforcement.

        Another behavioural psychologist I know says it’s simple: does the learner look forward to repeating the learning experience? If not, it includes an aversive.

        1. Agree about Dr. Sidman’s book. Thanks for mentioning it! I like anything that lets me identify the hidden coercion in my life with my dogs. I think, given the power differential, it may always be there to some extent, but identifying it allows me to clean out some of the unconscious ways it can creep in.

  3. Thanks for putting this together. With fear and aggression the smaller the margin for error we allow, the more at risk we become for getting it wrong, the more likely we are to have an unwanted response. The diagram is very helpful to me. I often think of dogs as being on the top of a cliff and and some techniques have us working closer to the edge. I may have no way to know with any certainty what skills a particular dog and handler have (online chats or phone consults), so it’s safer to work further away from the edge. Some of them are working without a net and don’t even realize the risks they’re taking with their dog. Every rehearsal of an unwanted behavior, is a rehearsal of an unwanted behavior and we know dogs get better at something with practice, even if we’d rather they stopped doing it altogether. I’ll be sharing this.

    1. Thank you so much, Debbie. That is a great metaphor about the cliff. I’m linking to your website here for the benefit of people who may have happened on the blog because they have a fearful and/or aggressive dog. Folks, Debbie is well known for working with such dogs and is very generous with information on her website, and you can contact her there, too: .

  4. That is such an excellent movie. You made everything so clear. I am trying to figure out how to explain this stuff to people (people I am helping to train themselves; no dogs involved), so it helps me to have a handle on the terminology as I decide what to explain and use with them and what is probably not useful for their layperson understanding. Thank you!

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: