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Life doesn't work 'under threshold'

One of the biggest principles we see people desperately trying to cling to is this idea that all training must be done 'under threshold'. The basics of the principle being that when you are training anything new you find what the individual dog's 'threshold' is and then work below that for the duration of the training. The overall aim is generally to use positive reinforcement to teach the dog that the trigger isn't anything to be worried about and therefore build up the 'threshold' tolerance over time so that you are able to do more without the dog becoming stressed, anxious or reacting negatively.

So, in practice, if we use dog reactivity as an example, the training would go along the lines of the following:

  1. Initial assessment will aim to find the dogs comfortable 'threshold' (this will be where they aren't showing any signs of stress or anxiety and are comfortable working with the handler) so this may be at a certain distance away from another dog, it may be with a dog only sitting or lying down calmly, it may be with a toy dog only and that will be named the dog's 'threshold'

  2. The next step will be to being teaching the training principles of counter conditioning without the trigger around to build a foundation that the dog is able to understand and therefore use when the trigger is brought into the equation. Things like 'find it' (where the dog finds treats on the floor), 'watch me' (where the dog is asked to give eye contact) or doing engagement training (where the dog is heavily rewarded for disengaging with outside stimulus and offers eye contact to the handler)

  3. Then the trigger will be reintroduced with the dog's comfortable threshold in mind, plenty of space to allow for the handler and dog to take more space if they need to or reduce space if the dog is comfortable to do so and we begin working with the dogs new learnt counter conditioning training with the trigger at a comfortable distance

  4. Each session after this is then working on continuing these principles but aiming to close the gap and lower the threshold each time without the dog reacting or showing signs of stress or anxiety

Counter conditioning is a great training principle and one we regularly use in our day to day training. It's aim is to address the dogs mental and emotional state when faced with the trigger, which in turn reduces the reactivity towards the trigger as the dog no longer fear's it. It is a principle widely used within human psychology as well for fears and phobias, called CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). The same principles are followed, the assessment identifies where the person is comfortable with the trigger and where they aren't, then the sessions teach calming and anxiety reducing exercises to lower the person's anxiety levels whilst introducing the trigger in small steps to rewire the brains response to the trigger itself and therefore reduce the triggers overall affect on the body's fear response. CBT is a great method and is one that is widely relied upon within human psychology however, is not perfect and as with any psychological method, has pro's and con's and is hugely reliant on a few factors in order for it to work successfully.

Factors to consider:

1. One of the biggest and most important aspects of CBT is the therapists ability to help the client to rationalise the fear, making the fear smaller and more insignificant within their life. So in CBT you will spend a lot of time talking about the fear, talking about why it scares you, what about it makes you afraid and exploring your feelings and emotions around it. You will then talk about whether those fears are true or whether it is your mind wondering into a fear state in order to help you understand and rationalise the fear internally. For example, I am afraid of spiders and one of the reasons spiders scare me is because they look like they could hurt me. Part of CBT was exploring whether that fear was true, can spiders (at least in this country!) actually hurt me and the answer is no. Understanding that the fear I am feeling isn't actually true helps to rationalise it and therefore makes the fear itself less real. Unfortunately, this is not something we can do with our dogs, at least not to this extent and so it makes counter conditioning more challenging and less effective as we aren't able to understand the full emotional state of the dog or help explain to them whether their fear is rational or not.

2. The most important aspect of CBT and counter conditioning is staying below the identified threshold. Going above the threshold means the dog is becoming anxious, fearful and in a lot of cases they then move to reactivity. A dog feeling these emotions will then be adrenalizing and becoming stressed and through extensive research we know that long term stress can have big negative implications on any animals body, some of which are irreversible. The biggest problem is, we cannot control every single stimulus around us and our dogs and although there are steps we can take outside of sessions, if your dog accidentally ends up over threshold and it isn't dealt with well, it can hugely affect the training and mean that the dog actually ends up taking steps back in the training. Sadly, a lot of trainers who do training like this don't ever prepare dogs and owners on what to do if and when they encounter a situation where the dog is forced over threshold. So what happens is in that kind of situation, the owner panics, the dog reacts, everyone gets stressed out and then the dog ends up getting worse or no better as a result of it. Unless we never take these dogs anywhere other than places we can control every stimulus carefully to ensure they never become over threshold, there simply is no way to always keep your dog under threshold in every day life.

3. CBT and counter conditioning can be a very long process with very little progress being made in each session. No dog training is a quick fix and when you're working with complex emotions and reactivity especially, anyone who tells you it is a quick fix is either lying or not actually dealing with the emotions that the dog is feeling. However, counter conditioning is a pretty complex principle to actually carry out and a lot of people really struggle to do it well meaning they don't progress as quickly as they could either with a less complex method or with a trainer with them at all times when they are training. The reason why it is so difficult is because it requires impeccable timing, good handling skills, a good ability to read and understand canine body language and the ability to detach your emotions from the situation in order to not influence the dog. A lot of people really struggle with timing and handling and with a reactive dog, a few seconds or a wrong handling move can make all the difference.

So how can we ensure success when working on reactivity cases with counter conditioning?

Practice in quiet, well controlled places as much as possible in the early stages

A good trainer will give you the basic tools that you can practice with your dog in the first couple of sessions at the very least. Practice as much as you can in those early weeks in calm places, without the trigger or with the trigger at your dog's comfortable threshold so you and your dog can work on these principles when they aren't stressed and reacting.

Make sure your trainer gives you an 'emergency protocol' in the early sessions

It sounds silly but making sure you are as prepared for uncontrollable satiations as possible really is the key to success when it comes to counter conditioning. Your trainer, generally in the initial assessment, should talk you through or demonstrate the most constructive and safe way to handle your dog in the event of an emergency where your dog's threshold has been unexpectedly breeched. Life is unexpected and as much as we may try, we cannot control everyone and everything. If your trainer doesn't give you an emergency protocol, ask them what to do. If they don't have an answer or their answer is to never go over threshold, it may be better to speak to someone else. As much as we may want to keep our dogs under threshold and out of stressful situations as much as possible, it really isn't always possible and it's important to be prepared so that you and your dog are more likely to succeed in those situations.

Don't be afraid of trying other methods!

As I said, counter conditioning is just one of a bunch of other methods trainers can use in order to combat reactivity and it can be difficult. If it isn't working for you or your dog, don't be afraid to tell your trainer that and ask to try something else. Dog's don't all learn in exactly the same way and neither do humans. It may be that a different method or a slightly altered method suits you and your dog better and means you are able to find more success and make more progress. If your current trainer doesn't know another method, it may be time to find another. Some trainers specialise in a particular methodology and there is no shame in saying that that isn't working for you and your dog.

The most important thing is helping you and your dog to succeed so you can go out and enjoy your time together without worrying or being stressed! The sooner we can do that, with preferably the least amount of stress possible, the better!


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