Updated: Dec 10, 2019
A very common issue I hear from my clients and the general public is that their dogs are over threshold and either aren’t listening or are physically out of control. They throw out cues or commands hoping they will listen, try to control them with a leash or put them in their crates / kennel area thinking they will “calm down”.
Of course, usually, none of these things work, help us understand why the dogs got to this point, much less teach the dogs to focus and/or exhibit calmer behavior.
Let’s face it – when we are over threshold and/or over stimulated, how well do we listen, follow instructions and/or make good choices? Our dogs are no different. When dogs are over threshold, they don’t make good choices, cannot perform tasks or desired behaviors properly and even can increase their change of an injury. Whether you are working on obedience, manners, sport training or K9 Fitness, learning how to work a dog under threshold can be challenging . . .but most definitely doable with some changes and adjustments by the handlers.
Recently I have had several clients with dogs ranging from 14 weeks to 2 years come to me either with behavioral issues or needing to learn how to train and manage their dogs. The common denominator in these dogs was that the owners didn’t know how to recognize when their dogs were moving into an over stimulated state and going over threshold.
Although there are many things we can do to help our dogs from going over threshold, here are a few things that can help you get started.
Expectations in New Environments:
One reason dogs struggle and become over threshold is when we move our training to a new and/or distracting environment (which could be your driveway). Expecting to achieve the same results and success with behaviors when we introduce a new environment and/or begin to add distractions can be very challenging for dogs. Consider the environment and level of distractions you are training in. Going from your living room with no distractions to a park on a Saturday afternoon is likely not going to well for either of you.
Change environments slowly, introduce distractions slowly and remember you may need to lower your expectations a little while your dog is acclimating to the new environment. I like to have my clients move from the living room to other rooms in the house, then add distractions inside before moving to the front porch or driveway with no distractions. It may not seem like a big change to us, but to the dog it is huge!
Train Don’t Test!
Many times, people will “test” their dogs to “see what they can do” before the foundation for focus, impulse control, auto-check-ins, static behaviors (sit, down, stand, stay) are solid.
We live in a fast paced, immediate need for results and keeping up with the Jones’ society. Our dogs do not! Although I see this in companion dog training, I also see this a lot in sport training. People move to quickly on the foundation steps of the sport they are in and begin to test the dog in training. Stretching is one thing, testing is another. Testing comes on competition day; training is for every other day.
The same rule applies for companion dogs. If you take your dog to an environment they haven't been to and is filled with distractions (think about it from the dog's perspective) and try to "test" what you've been working on, you likely will be disappointed, as will your dog.
Use What Works
I see many people trying to get their dog to respond to them without having any type of reward with them. When a puppy or dog is learning something new, I am okay with them knowing the reward is in my hand or even seeing it before marking the desired behavior and then rewarding. Once the dog understands the mechanics of the behavior, I will begin to make changes to this depending on what is being taught and the complexity of the behavior.
For example, when teaching a sit or a down, I will have my students keep food in their hands and either shape or lure the behavior. Once the dog understands how to do the behavior and what brings the reward, I no longer want it to be about the food and will remove the food from the hand.
If a dog is over stimulated and/or over threshold, barking, jumping, bouncing around, many times, having food or a toy in your hand, getting your dog’s attention and working on short focus exercises will bring them into a state where they can learn. From here we can begin to teach the dog how to be calmer, build impulse control and be able to retain information and learn.
Using Your Energy
Many times, I see people talking to and/or praising their dogs during training (and this is especially true with puppies and adolescent dogs) in a high-pitched voice, with lots of body movement and very excited energy. What I also see is a dog that gets very animated, begins to become over stimulated, sometimes gets mouthy, starts barking, jumping and bouncing – at which point the person’s attitude changes to one of frustration, anger, and/or embarrassment wondering why their dog is acting this way.
One thing that I teach my clients is to present the energy you want to achieve from your dog. If you want calm energy, project calm energy. If you want some excitement and want to build or keep drive going, or build more confidence in a dog, project more happy, excited and/or animated energy. There’s a time and place for both but knowing what you want to achieve is the first step.
Softer verbal rewards, less body movement and careful doling out of rewards is best for those with dog that tend to become overstimulated easily and quickly go over threshold.
Finding the right balance, taking a little time to think about and plan what you want to do, where your dog is in their learning stage, and keeping sessions short can make training and learning more fun and successful for you and your dog!