Dogs young and old have thresholds: duration, distance, and intensity. Most young dogs have low thresholds and become overwhelmed easily. This happens when exposed to too much stimuli for too long of a time period, at close range, and high intensity. These are all relative depending on each individual animal. When we determine those thresholds for our dogs, we make training very effective. Gradual exposure combined with asking the dog to respond to a learned obedience cue is a good way to raise his thresholds. Shaping is a great way to achieve this, too. When dogs “work” for what they want and need, they grow into mindful-not reactive-animals.
Trained adult dogs have thresholds, too. My own dog “tells” me via a certain look that he has had enough of someone petting him. We thank the greeter, wish him a nice day, and move along.
Set Up for Success
Continually placing your dog in situations where he is overwhelmed isn’t helpful. There are few to no opportunities for him to offer an appropriate behavior or respond to a learned cue. He is over a threshold level of arousal and his brain is fuzzy. How can you reinforce desired behaviors in the presence of any stimulus when the dog cannot respond appropriately?
If your dog flips his wig at the little league game, don’t stand so close to the field. Start at the fringes, where he has a chance to observe at a distance with lower intensity action and noise. Give him a bit of time to work it out in his head. If he’s frozen in fear, leave, or move farther away. Do not mistake “frozen in fear” for “sitting calmly”.
Stop and Think!
When presented with an opportunity to engage in a gratifying activity, dogs show us something by way of behavior. If overwhelmed with excitement, most dogs react by barking, frenetic movements, or other mindless behaviors. If those behaviors result in access to that opportunity, the dog will habitually practice them. They work for him.
In order to transform the dog’s behaviors into calm ones, you can ask the dog to earn access to these desired activities. Meet and greets are often overwhelming transitions: someone is approaching and the dog struggles to remain quietly on four feet. A social interaction with that person doesn’t happen if the dog is mindlessly leaping about. It happens when the dog stops and is asked to think: “sit and wait”.
Make It a Habit
Because dogs change from puppy to adolescent to adult, learn to earn can be a lifestyle. Dogs’ behaviors are driven by thresholds throughout life, so pay attention. Your dog is always communicating with you!
Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC