smallaggressivedogYou may hear the words over or under threshold used when a dog is reactive to a stimulus or trigger.  But what does this term mean and how can you help a reactive dog? 

Can the reaction be different in different circumstances and what is “trigger stacking”?

Dogs respond to fear, threat or stress by producing adrenalin and cortisol often referred to as the “fight or flight” response.  In fact the dog can and does use more than those 2 responses.  
(See this article about the health effects of prolonged stress and note the additional “f”‘s although faint is now also on this list. )

We recommend you work with a reward based trainer to help you through problems, this is to help you understand the process.

When trying to retrain reactions, it is recommended you try to keep the dog under threshold.  Essentially just at or under the point there is the tiniest response.  This means you need to recognise the earliest signs of stress in your dog.  This can be as innocuous as a yawn or stretch.  That is the first threshold. The dog is saying I’m not sure, I don’t like this.
( see “Calming signals” article by Turid Rugass—the-art-of-survival.html )

To convince your dog he or she is safe and is not being forced towards the problem, stop, pause, (as long as the dog is not escalating the response, if so, you’ve gone too far, go further away) act calmly and confidently and allow a little lead so your dog can move back, forwards, sit or lie down.  That choice is important. Speak calmly, reward the dog, do not over excite him or her. If the dog remains calm, walk further away and reward again when the dog or other trigger comes into view again.  You are showing your dog that you are not forcing the issue.  You are diffusing the stress and allowing the dog to stay calm and rewarding that calmness. 

You may need to repeat this many times, gradually moving closer as the dog accepts being safe at each distance.  Any escalation, move back, reward at that calm point, try again another time. The dog must have confidence in you and the choice it can make to leave. 

Threshold point can change. 

For example: 

  • if a trigger is dogs, the breed, posture and reaction of the other dog can cause the threshold distance to increase or decrease.  It is not necessarily a relapse by your dog.
  • If the trigger is noise, the type, frequency and intensity can change the threshold.  Work with all types of noise to desensitise as much as possible. 
  • A repeated trigger, such as several dogs that keep appearing or coming closer in a short space of time or before the adrenalin from the first response has had a chance to lower is “trigger stacking”.  Essentially repeated triggers escalating the response.  These do not need to be the same trigger for the dog to react in very high arousal and lose control.  Try to remove yourself and the dog to somewhere quiet.  Go home if you can.
  • If your dog does not like people approaching and touching whether at home or outdoors, stop them doing it.  Keep your dog safe. Owners often make visitors give treats and a scared dog is conflicted, causing more stress.  Your dog needs a safe space and distance, not to be forced to deal with people.

Get professional help to deal with fear and reactive problems.  There is no one way guaranteed to fix this.  Every dog and their fear and experiences is different.  Distance, reward and gradual desensitising usually help but at different rates for each dog.

Recognising the first sign of stress is crucial as in the calming signals link above.  Helping your dog to be calm and safe using your own body language and tone of voice is a big help.

Some dogs need help to boost their natural brain chemistry and get more of the ones that help relax them such as oxytocin and serotonin.  Endorphins help to calm us all.  Dogs running on high adrenalin are not producing enough of these to calm themselves.  Safe, natural products can help to boost the brain signal that produces these chemicals.  These are not drugs, they do not sedate dogs and can be bought online.

Try using:

  • Thundershirt, this wraps tightly around the dog and helps to make them feel safe, used when going out or when a visitor comes
  • Products with L-Tryptophan in such as Zylkene and Serene-um and Adaptil Advance tablets.  These trigger the release of the good chemicals
  • Older remedies such as those with lavender, valerian and chamomile in are still used and can help
  • I have had some success with Bach Rescue Remedy for targeted treatment before a walk or car ride
  • Adaptil or Pet Remedy spray.  I prefer the sprays as you can target their use.  A squirt in the back of the car for travel, or on a bandana used for a walk can help.  At home on their bed too.

For safety outdoors, use a double ended lead attached to a harness and collar. Stay safe, stay calm, look confident. Prepare your dog with safe products when out, go slowly and work with a professional where needed.

Remember, go home where possible if you make a mistake and try later or tomorrow. Be vigilant and learn the signs that your dog is not happy and do something to remove the trigger or your dog or in an emergency, get your dog behind you and stay in front.

About Safepets UK

Expert Witness behaviourist assessing dogs for court, treating cats and dogs. Covering Midlands to London and other areas.

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