A word we often see, especially when talking about more sensitive and complex dogs, with a tendency towards fearfulness and telling the world to go away loudly, is ‘threshold’ – but what does it mean and why is it relevant to all dogs?
Just as we do, dogs feel emotions. Not all the same as us, as dogs don’t feel more complex emotions like guilt or shame (the body language when supposedly guilty is in fact appeasement and fear) but they feel joy, fear, contentment, excitement etc. Emotions like joy, excitement, and fear all trigger hormones in the dog’s body, and these hormones increase the dog’s arousal level – priming the body for action.
The more things a dog encounters that raise arousal levels without an opportunity to calm down the closer they come to a point they can take no more. This is their ‘threshold’ point. They can’t tolerate anything else happening. Once over threshold we see the stereotypical reactive behaviour displays – growling, lunging, barking.
There are things we can watch to ensure our dogs stay under this threshold, keeping them comfortable and not feeling a need to react, to protect themselves. Here are five signs to look out for:
A window into the emotional state of the dog
These can tell us a lot about their emotional state, although it’s important to avoid staring a dog direct in the eye for too long, as it’s rude and confrontational in canine terms.
Pupil size: pupils dilate when a dog’s stress levels rise, to allow more light into the eye and improve visual processing so the dog can observe their surroundings better.
Gaze direction and intensity: when something is worrying a dog, they do their best to watch it. The more worried they are, the more intensely they watch. If the dog’s stare becomes fixed on an object and they’re not easily distracted from it, it’s time to make more distance from that object, so the dog feels safer.
Relaxed but interested in something
Ears can be really good indicators of arousal levels. In dogs with upright pricked ears, they are an easy sign to look for. It’s harder in dogs with long ears but, with practice, the signs can be seen. It’s a good idea to spend some time observing your dog and seeing how their ears look when they are relaxed and content as the quicker you can spot any changes, the quicker you can realise if your dog needs more distance or a break from something.
Ears right forward: like the eyes, a dog will often have their ears fixed on the source of their unease. When both eyes and ears are fixed on something, it’s potentially causing stress and may push their arousal levels right up. Making distance and getting the dog away from what’s concerning them is a good move.
Ears held back: ears out to the side – ‘airplane ears’ – show a dog who’s conflicted and unsure. Ears right back so far that they almost disappear – ‘seal ears’ – denote a scared dog, who may be close to feeling a need to defend themselves. This can be harder to see in long-eared dogs as they can’t move their ears back like that. Instead, their ears appear pinched in against the sides of the head.
This dog is playing, but arousal is still high
Just as with ears, observing your dog in normal situations and seeing how they hold their tail is a really good idea. Different types of dogs have very different neutral tail carriage from others. A tail low under the body is natural for some breeds but means something completely different for others. Some breeds have a naturally high tail carriage over their backs. Knowing and understanding the individual dog in front of you is so important.
Tail raised above horizontal (or tighter curled and tense in breeds with a naturally high tail carriage like huskies for example): a common sign of raised arousal and one of the easiest to spot when you are familiar with what to look for to tell you more distance is needed. With my own dog I know that once his tail gets close to 45 degrees above level with his back, he needs to get to a safe distance and have something else to think about like scattered treats, for example. If we don’t do this, he will go over threshold and react. This is a key sign to keep a watch on for your dog’s arousal levels.
Tail tucked between hind legs (or right forward under the stomach in breeds with a naturally low tail carriage such as greyhounds or whippets): this signals fear. A scared dog will make distance, will run away, if they can – but if they can’t (for instance on a lead or trapped in a corner with no escape) they may well feel they have to resort to a reactive behaviour display.
This dog is very unsure and has piloerection over the shoulders
This is another term for raised hackles, the hair on a dog’s back. Depending on the dog’s type and breed and individual coat, the hackles can appear as patches of hair on the neck, shoulders, above the tail, or right from the neck to the tail. Contrary to popular thought raised hackles are not a sign of aggressive intent, only of a raised arousal level. Piloerection is an important sign to be aware of, especially when occurring alongside the other signs of increased stress.
Alert and interested, it would be worth keeping a close eye on this dog.
The way a dog holds their body can tell us so much about how they are feeling. A relaxed dog is relaxed in their body. A scared dog will lean back, creating distance from the source of their fear. An alert and interested dog will be a little forward in their posture. A dog who has been unable to get away from the source of their fear in the past and escalated until they learned that displays of aggressive looking behaviours make things go away will be very forward in how they hold their body, in preparation for the lunging and barking most associated with reactive behaviours.
If these signs are seen, especially if you see more than one at a time, the safest thing to do is remove your dog from the situation and find some space, give them some time to calm and recover.
If you want to find out more from the perspective of living with a complex and sensitive dog, the ‘Learning From My Reactive Dog’ webinar recording discusses the feelings experienced and lessons learned by one human/canine combination.