Who among us hasn’t experienced the frustration of teaching our dogs a behavior that we feel he “knows” and then taking him somewhere only to find out that it falls apart completely in a new environment. For instance the dog that will hold a sit/stay at home with ease but is a jumping maniac when you take him on a walk or the neighbors come for dinner.
The key to a well behaved dog that can listen and respond to the behaviors you have taught him in any environment is your ability to assess his threshold of tolerance for distractions. A training threshold is the place where the dog is beginning to notice the distractions in the environment making it harder for him to perform a behavior he may perform perfectly in a quiet environment. In training all dogs it is important to be aware of what your dog’s thresholds are for any behavior but especially those that are newly acquired. Dogs that are in the learning phase of their training have acquired some of the basics of the behavior but don’t always perform it reliably under all circumstances. In order to successfully train a dog to respond in any environment you need to not only be aware of what your dog’s thresholds are but know how to manipulate the threshold so as to help the dog learn to perform the behavior in the new environment.
An example might be a dog that is just learning how to “leave it”. The set up at home might be that you can drop a cookie on the floor in front of your dog, say “leave it” and your dog will not lunge for the food and look at up at you quickly to earn his reward. This is an example of a SUB-threshold environment. Under these circumstances the dog has learned the behavior and is reliable in doing it when you ask. On a walk around the neighborhood however when you do this same set up he is much slower to back off and look at you, many times only doing the back off and never looking up. This is an example of being ON the threshold. Being on the threshold means that he is still able to perform part of the behavior, but the complete behavior is either missing or has a very slow response. When this happens it is important to have some tools for helping your dog be successful.
4 Keys to Helping Your Dog Change His Threshold
1. Move further away from distractions if possible
2. Use a better treat. Switch to something he LOVES!
3. Ask for a previous step for a bit before moving forward. In the case of ” leave it” you would go back to the back off step for a bit before waiting for the looking back at you step.
4. Quit and re-group. If you find that your dog is not making forward progress end the session and try again later. Sometimes it takes repeated exposures to make the progress you are hoping for.
If you can’t get the dog to perform a lesser step of the behavior or he stops eating or he doesn’t respond to your cues at all you know you have gone OVER threshold and should stop the session. Trying to train a dog who is over threshold is fruitless, he is too aroused and excited to learn anything and needs you to help him calm down and go somewhere quieter. Sitting down and figuring out a new place to work that isn’t quite so exciting is a logical next step and will insure that you are building his tolerance and his skill set step by step. Training programs that are built on slow progressions and thoughtful management of distractions end with dogs that are completely and reliably trained to respond to all of your cues in any environment.