BARKS from the Guild November 2019

Page 22


Trigger Warning! Alex Walker examines the importance of what it means to work under threshold and the impact this has on the learning process, based on a recent behavior consultation


e’re all familiar with the term “threshold,” the magical line where, when kept under it, our dogs can focus and learn. During behavior consultations, the concept of a threshold and how to stay under it are, in my opinion, a trainer’s best friend. But how do we know that our dogs are actually under threshold? Certainly, we’ve all been in situations where progress, at times, looks like one step forward and two steps back. In this article, we will look at what one par­ ticular dog's threshold looked like and how this realization led to a dras­ tic increase in learning and behavior change. Before we get started, let's take a look at our student, Stanley. Stan­ ley is 3­year­old cattle dog who had been adopted and returned after three days, then adopted again, this time by his forever family. Stanley was a dog who knew what he liked and that included his new home, his new cattle dog brother, and his mom. Everyone else could take a hike. Visitors on the property? Forget it. Stanley was happy enough to tell them they were not welcome (through barking, growling, and the occa­ sional bite). He had found doggie heaven with his new mom and did not want any interruptions. It took less than a month for Stanley’s new owner to realize this couldn’t continue, so she contacted me and off we went with the goal of helping Stanley understand how to be comfort­ able and relaxed with guests on the property. After an initial discussion and thorough history taking, it was de­ cided that our first appointment would take place on neutral territory. This would allow me to talk to Stanley’s owner without the trigger of the property line and, hopefully, start the process of pairing myself with reinforcement. Knowing that Stanley was people reactive, I entered the building first and generously scattered treats across the room, keeping a good bit of distance so Stanley did not feel pressured. During the first session, it was clear he was uncomfortable. He was sniffing around, re­ fusing the food and watching every small movement I made. His owner was very engaged and we spent the majority of the time learning about Stanley and what made him tick, while talking and pairing small move­ ments with reinforcement and encouraging calm behavior in the train­ ing room. After about 10­15 minutes, he started to move from his spot on top of mom’s feet and began sniffing and searching for the treats. By the end of the session and after a couple of inquisitive sniffs from Stanley, we had our starting point established and a detailed plan on how to start counterconditioning. First was the need for a location change. Despite the lack of reaction on neutral territory (Stanley did not bark or lunge once), it was immediately clear that he was not comfort­ able. His obvious tension and even the absence of behaviors we knew he practiced regularly at home told us that we had not yet found what “under threshold” looked like for Stanley.

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© Alex Walker

Stanley (right) liked his new home, his new cattle dog brother, Tucker (left), and his new owner, but made it clear he wasn’t so keen on much else

Reactivity For our next appointment, we met in the home, which is a large prop­ erty that Stanley and his new brother, Tucker, had the run of along with two horses and a cow named Sprinkles. As I pulled up to the gate, Stan­ ley was there to greet me and, ah­ha! There was the barking and lung­ ing we had discussed. Mom quickly recalled him and he immediately returned to her and followed her inside to relax in his crate while we discussed the session outside. We set our criteria ladder as follows: 1. Stanley will relax in his crate while mom reinforces for relaxed body language and a calm demeanor as I enter through the front door (the crate is closed and is away from the door on the other side of the room). 2. Stanley will be reinforced for a calm demeanor while I move around the room both in and out of his eyeline. 3. Stanley will be reinforced for a calm demeanor while I move into his eyeline and finally take a seat on the couch in the living room. With the plan now in place, we were quick to get into position, with me at the front door and mom inside next to Stanley. Now, the start of

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BARKS from the Guild/November 2019

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