Your Dog’s Emotional Threshold

Added on October 10, 2017


My dogs and I were attacked by a loose dog last night. We were just around the corner from our front door when I heard someone yell in the distance. When I looked up, I saw a loose dog at the intersection, across the street. She saw us and made a beeline toward us.

I dropped the leashes of two of my dogs (both senior females who I trust off leash) and tried to body block my third, the most volatile, from the impending confrontation. As the loose dog came towards us, I tried to “catch” her and keep her far enough away that no harm would happen to either dog. She ducked around me and started to engage my third dog, whose leash I still held in the hopes of having some control over the situation. Thankfully, I was able to keep the dogs from any prolonged contact, although my little guy (he’s not really little, he weighs 50 pounds) did have some good bruising on his side from a strong grab and pull. At the time she got a good hold on Noodles, I was able to keep her from shaking her head, and the only skin broken was on my knee and knuckles from the sidewalk.

As she once again maneuvered around my body block, the person who was chasing the dog ran up and put his arms around her, holding her down to the ground. I had to use the handle of my leash, which was still in my hands somehow, to encourage her to let go of Noodles, which she did pretty quickly. With her secured, I got my dogs inside my house, checked for injuries (none! WHEW!) and returned to help control the loose dog. He had her pinned and was trying to put her collar and leash. He also had a harness, which apparently wasn’t on the dog, or wasn’t attached to her leash. As he held her, I managed to get all three on, and attached the leash to her harness, then collar and looped it around the harness, making sure she was super secure.

Now that the immediate dangers to all of us were contained, I took a minute to assess the dog. She looked very healthy, well cared for, and had her tags on (including an up to date rabies tag.) But despite the physical indications of well-being, she was panting, struggling to escape, wild-eyed and very, very stressed. This is what we call a dog beyond her Threshold.



The first thing I want to make clear is that this dog was not what a trainer or behaviorist or I would consider aggressive. She behaved in an aggressive manner, true, but her demeanor, including her bite inhibition, gave me no fear for my personal safety, even when I first saw her running toward us. She didn’t try to harm me and my hands were all over her and in her mouth blocking my own dog from harm. This was not an aggressive dog. She was, however, stressed, scared, and beyond her threshold.

Imagine this: It’s Monday. Your alarm didn’t go off. You forget to put coffee in the coffee maker, and end up with hot water in the pot and no time to make more. You wait in line forever at the coffee shop, then you spill your first sip on your shirt. Your car, once you finally get to it, has a flat tire and a parking ticket. Feel stressed yet? Feel like it’s “the last straw”?  Feel like letting loose a few select words or taking it out on an inanimate object? Congratulations! You have reached your own behavioral threshold.

For the point of this article, we will define a canine behavior threshold as the point “when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another.” For example, a dog who “suddenly bites out of nowhere” has been pushed beyond her threshold for what preceded the incident. A dog that reacts to other dogs on leash can also be considered over their threshold for proximity to other dogs while leashed. My dogs, when they have treed a squirrel, will sometimes lunge and snap at each other – their excitement thresholds obviously surpassed when the squirrels taunt them from branches overhead.

Approaching or exceeding a threshold doesn’t always mean aggressive behavior. Dogs who have been pushed beyond their limits can also shut down, get the crazy zoomies, or otherwise react in ways that are out of character. At the point a dog crosses their emotional threshold, physiological changes take place in their bodies and instinct takes over most control. Your dog may ignore you, treats, water. Their eyes may be open wide, with pupils dilated, breath heavy or outright panting.They won’t take food or water, and will not respond to normal commands, no matter how ingrained.

As long as your dog is in this emotional state, they will not respond to you as they normally do. They are in an instinctive fight or flight mental state, and unless you’re in their way, you are of no consequence beyond that. The only thing you can do in the moment is to remove your dog from the cause of their distress, or remove the stimulus from their proximity.

As we grow, our thresholds also grow outwards. An infant will scream and cry when hungry, while we adults will instead consult our Oracle of Chilled Foods. A 1,500-word paper to a freshman in high school will feel like a quick note to a grad school student. A time-consuming commute to work becomes a habit. This philosophy can also be applied to your consideration of your dog’s emotional thresholds.

Thresholds are as individualized as our dogs. Once you get to know  your dog’s thresholds, you can work to help them stretch these limits a little at a time. The most important thing to remember in doing so is to retreat/remove the stimulus at the first sign of distress, and reward your dog for it before, during and after. This can be done humanely and safely, but you must be patient and willing to let the adjustment happen in its own time. Forcing the issue before it’s time is not only upsetting to your dog but can make the problem worse. I recommend talking to a professional trainer for a specific course of action to follow. A trainer can also help you understand some of the more subtle ways your dog tells you it is in distress that we humans may miss.

With care, time and patience, you can help your dogs to stretch the boundaries of their thresholds. When you begin to recognize the stress signs that indicate boundaries are being exceeded in any dog, both you and your dog will be safer and more able to handle situations that may arise. For more information, stay tuned to our blog, I’ll be writing more about factors of this incident, specifically stress in dogs and things you can do to reduce stress while keeping you and your dog sane, safe and healthy.


Add a Comment

(* = required)