Category: Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

I recently gave a webinar entitled, “Over Threshold: The Changing Definition,” for the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). Thank you to everybody who came! That was so cool to recognize some names!

I am outlining here some basics from the webinar. The reason I created the webinar in the first place was to allay confusion in the dog community about definitions and to aid in communication. I think some straightforward definitions and a “map” will help many people and their dogs.

I argue that there are three distinct, necessary, and useful definitions of the word “threshold” in dog training. They are:

  1. Sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here is one textbook definition: The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.—Psychology, Peter Gray, 5th edition, 2007. In the webinar I go into the history, discuss types of thresholds in psychology (yes, even within the discipline there is more than one), and cite several more definitions and supporting information. There are many sensory thresholds: hearing, different aspects of vision, smell, touch, etc. One way the psych definition of absolute threshold is unfamiliar to our common use of “threshold” in training is that it is the stimulus that is above or below the threshold of the organism’s sensory capabilities. We say, “That sound is under the threshold of hearing,” not, “The dog is over its threshold of hearing.” Organisms’ responses to sensory stimuli are often invisible to the naked eye, and the responses generally do not correlate to overt, “dramatic” behavior.
  2. Threshold in the common training sense. You can find definitions of this usage in books by Leslie McDevitt, Debbie Jacobs, Laura VanArendonk Baugh, and more. These definitions roughly agree. Here is Debbie Jacobs’, which is very straightforward: The threshold is the point at which your dog can no longer deal with a trigger before reacting in a negative way (with fear or aggression).” — A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog, 2011I argue that this usage of the term generally corresponds to the response of the sympathetic nervous system: the fight/flight/freeze response or the fear response. In this usage, it’s the dog that is said to be over threshold, not the stimulus. I also cover usages of the term “threshold” by behaviorists including Steven Lindsay, Dr. James O’Heare, and Dr. Karen Overall. They discuss dozens of sensory, physiological, and behavioral thresholds, and always specify which one they mean.
  3. Threshold of stimulus aversiveness. This threshold is the point at which an existing stimulus becomes aversive, generally because of the intensity of the exposure. I gave this threshold a name, but I didn’t invent the concept. It is necessary to locate this threshold through our dogs’ behavior when doing both desensitization/counterconditioning protocols and operant learning processes. Jean Donaldson defines it thusly: In DS/CC, “under threshold” is: An intensity of stimulus that elicits no fear (and so the intensity of stimulus that would not function as R-)…. Not “mild fear” or “manageable fear,” it’s NO fear.–The Pitfalls of Negative Reinforcement, PPG Webinar, 2012. Attention to this threshold is necessary also in negative reinforcement protocols that involve escape, since the stimulus exposure must be over the threshold of aversiveness in order for escape to function as negative reinforcement.

I believe that most of the problems in discussion of thresholds in the dog training community are due to two major points of confusion: 1) Whether we’re talking about the dog or the stimulus being over threshold (confusion between Definitions #1 and #2); and 2) The fact that many of us haven’t realized there is a difference between Definitions #2 and #3.

Mapping it Out

Here is a graphic showing these three different thresholds, and where the major types of protocols for working with fearful, aggressive, or reactive dogs fall among them:

Thresholds for blog

 This graphic may be shared for educational purposes with the copyright and credits included, and I would appreciate online citations to link back to this post or the webinar page.

The combination of desensitization/counterconditioning is performed under the threshold of aversiveness, as Jean Donaldson describes. Protocols using negative reinforcement (escape/retreat from the aversive stimulus) must take place partly over the threshold of aversiveness, or else the movement away is not reinforcing. They generally go back and forth over that threshold. Finally, flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear response. In the webinar I split things out further and map six different protocols separately; I have roughly grouped them for this graphic.

I also talk about the ways that some of the thresholds move and change, through training, external events, and the emotional state of the dog. I describe how certain protocols become more difficult if two of the thresholds are very close. For instance, for wild animals the threshold of sensory perception of a stimulus and the threshold of aversiveness of that stimulus may be practically on top of each other. I address the often-heard claim that there is no negative reinforcement happening if the dog is “under threshold.” (Which threshold?) Also, I discuss which protocol is likely to take place closer to the stimulus—but also why the absolute distance is not a good point of comparison.

Conclusion

I will be working further on this topic, in part because of some great questions asked at the end of the webinar, so you may expect more from me about it at some point. The webinar is no longer available through PPG, but I plan to release a similar one in the future. I’m working on it in 2022.

Please note that the webinar will not have information on how to perform the above-mentioned training/conditioning protocols, on reading dog body language, or other training tips. It’s not about how to train a fearful or aggressive dog. But the feedback I have gotten from viewers is that it has clarified an area of considerable confusion and that it will help their training.

Related Posts

 
Threshold Webinar

Threshold Webinar

Guess what, folks? If you wondered why I’m not posting much right now: I am giving a webinar through the Pet Professional Guild and have been working my butt off on that for several weeks. The webinar is Over Threshold: The Changing Definition. Click on the image below to sign up. (There is a charge: $10 for PPG members and $20 for non-members. There is one CEU available for CPDTs.)

The webinar will take place on Wednesday, February 19th, at 12:00 – 1:30 PM Central Standard Time (6:00 – 7:30 PM UTC).

<<Note: The live webinar has taken place, but is still available as a recording.>>

This will be very different from any other discussion about threshold you have ever participated in.

Be ready to find out:

  • Why there are so many different definitions of “threshold” floating around out there;
  • Why the use of the term in psychology and the use of the term in animal training don’t quite “fit”;
  • What effect this confusion has on training, and discussions about it;
  • Where desensitization/counterconditioning; negative reinforcement protocols such as are included in BAT* and  CAT**; and flooding fall with regard to these different definitions of threshold; and
  • What we can do to clear up our discourse.

Yes, those are the waters I am daring to jump into. Hope you can come!

Click on the image or the URL below.

Eileen and three dogs threshold2

Over Threshold: The Changing Definition (Still available as a recording.)

Coming up:

  • All-Natural
  • Which Dog is Playing?
  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Is My Dog a Drama Queen?
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* Behavior Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart

**Constructional Aggression Treatment by Kellie Snider

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Sweet little Summer
Sweet little Summer

I have mentioned before that my dog Summer is reactive. Reactive has come to refer to a dog who reacts strongly (and inappropriately in the human’s view), usually with an aggressive display, to some specific triggers. Some of Summer’s triggers are strange dogs (in some settings), strange men (in even more settings), delivery trucks, certain noises other dogs make, and rowdy play on the part of her housemates. The latter earns her the moniker of a “Fun Police” dog. She tries to stop the other dogs when they do things that bother her, and she is not very nice about it.

Continue reading “Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police”
Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Alligator ellipticalI have an elliptical training machine in my back room. I’ve had it for three years. Zani loves that room because that’s where the kibble, some human food, and other interesting things are stored.

But when I get on the elliptical to exercise, she’s outta there. It doesn’t really have alligator jaws attached to it, but I think that’s a good portrayal of the way Zani used to see it.

For those who aren’t familiar with these exercise machines, here is a video of an elliptical in motion. It is similar to mine. You can see where a sensitive dog could be alarmed with the motion.

I have mats in that room for dogs to hang out on, and Summer and Clara stay on their mats and get the occasional treat while I exercise. Cricket did so too in her day. But not Zani, until now.

The other day I realized I could probably help Zani get over her fears. It took all of 5 days, and I did it while I was exercising.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

The techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) are often used together to help animals, including humans, recover from fears. They are not bandaid solutions that mask the symptoms. When done correctly, they change the animal’s emotional response.

Systematic desensitization is a procedure in which learned fear of a neutral stimulus is extinguished by exposing the animal to the stimulus so gradually that involuntary fear responses are never triggered. –Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

This is the technique where you start with the thing the animal is scared of (the stimulus) at a distance or intensity where the thing is not scary.  When the animal is OK with that, you gradually bring it closer or intensify it. Dr. Friedman points out that desensitization can only get the animal from scary to neutral. It doesn’t make the animal delighted or happy with the stimulus. But it can get the animal OK with it.

With counterconditioning, the animal’s respondent behavior to a stimulus is replaced with an opposite automatic response.–Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

OK, counterconditioning is the frosting on the cake. Counterconditioning is the technique that can actually replace fear or another undesirable response with a positive emotional response. This is done by associating the scary stimulus with something wonderful, while the animal is under threshold, consistently over time.

Here is an article that defines the terms desensitization and counterconditioning and lays out how to design a training protocol.

And here is a later article by me that outlines the steps of using DS/CC to help Zani love the sound of Velcro.

Zani’s DS/CC Story

…is very short.

Starting point: Typically when I would get on the elliptical, she would leave and go into the bedroom across the hall. She often went out of sight and got on the bed. That was her comfortable distance from the elliptical, so that’s where we started.

Picture 1: Since I was tossing treats to the other dogs anyway, I started tossing some into that bedroom (bank shot!). She learned to hang out by that doorway and get the treats. She could be out of sight of the elliptical if she chose. Distance: 16–19 feet.

Pictures 2a and 2b: Soon she started waiting in the hallway instead of in the doorway to the bedroom, so I started aiming the treats into the hall. I could tell she was comfortable because she didn’t retreat to the bedroom anymore or show any signs of concern, just happily chased down the treats. Distance: 12.5–16 feet.

Picture 3: All my dogs are trained to get on mats. The mats have good associations with relaxation and treats. So I threw a mat down in the area where Zani was already comfortable. She immediately got on it and stayed there happily when I got on the elliptical and started tossing treats. This was a big step because previously she had been on her feet and moving. If she had had any residual fear, she was free to trot away farther. Staying still in the presence of the elliptical was a big step. Hence, I didn’t cue her to get on the mat. I gave her the choice. I would have tossed treats either way. But she immediately plopped down on the mat and stayed there.

Technically this was a switch to the technique of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior, or DRI, from counterconditioning, since Zani was now also being reinforced for getting on her mat. However, as I mention below, operant and respondent behaviors can be all knotted up at times. Distance 12.5 feet.

Picture 4: Over two more days I moved the mat closer. I could tell that Zani was fine with that because her body language was comfortable, and she always got on the very front of the mat. Final distance: 10.5 feet.

That’s it! She can now participate in the “Eileen exercises and dogs lie on their mats and get treats” event. She is within my treat throwing range and she is completely comfortable. I don’t want any of the dogs closer than the current “front row” while I’m exercising since the moving parts of the elliptical could be dangerous for them. Since Zani generally likes a front-row seat, it will be interesting to see if she moves up to try to join or displace another dog. I’m betting she will. I may have to train her to stay back from the elliptical!

Here is a slide show of the steps we took.

I apologize for the poor photos. I wanted to show my view from the elliptical, and the actual distances involved. The light (and the clutter in the room) was not conducive to that. Pictures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 are reconstructions by the way. I didn’t take photos during the process.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Slow Techniques?

To review: the desensitization part was moving Zani gradually closer to the doorway of the back room while the elliptical was in motion. The counterconditioning part was the yummy treats that accompanied the process. DRI came into play when Zani started settling on the mat. It worked because I didn’t rush. I watched Zani to be sure she wasn’t scared and just venturing forth to get the treats, then retreating to safety again. She had to feel safe with every step.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are often said to be slow. They can be. Depending on the history and intensity of the adverse reaction, the attractiveness of the counterconditioning item (usually really good food or fun play), correct timing, and the skill of the trainer, these techniques can take a while.

But guess what? Not always. I was frankly amazed at how fast Zani got over her mistrust of the elliptical, and felt bad that I hadn’t tried to help her in any systematic way before.

Even when these techniques take time, they are always my choice, along with operant learning using positive reinforcement**,  for helping an animal overcome its fears. They are completely humane, and science has supported for decades that they create a true emotional response in an animal. I am privileged to watch my formerly feral dog Clara, under the care of a skilled trainer, blossoming into a comfortable, sociable dog, using these methods.

By the way, the treats I use for the elliptical mat game are pieces of Prairie kibble (which is small) and the undersized leftover pieces from when I cut up Natural Balance rolls. My dogs don’t typically need much encouragement to hang out on mats, and since I am throwing the treats while in motion, I don’t want to cause a scuffle if I were to toss something high value right between two dogs. But if I had planned better I would have used something higher value during Zani’s rehabilitation. The animal’s ultimate conditioned response can only be as positive as its response to that particular item, so one usually uses something really spectacular.  Luckily it turned out I didn’t need to. But perhaps to cap things off I’ll surprise them all with a piece of liverwurst (hand-delivered) now and then.

Do you have any great DS/CC success stories?

Related Posts

** Operant learning played a role in this protocol as well. Once the good feelings associated with the unconditioned stimulus start spreading to the previously feared items, the animal will often on its own develop behaviors to hasten its access to the goodies. In this instance, Zani performed the operant behaviors of chasing treats and lying on her mat. Both of these are familiar, comfortable, and pleasant for her. Sometimes just having a job to do is a great help. On the other hand, the mat itself has already been classically conditioned as a very nice place to be.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

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.