Thresholds…His, Mine, and Ours

My handsome Monte boy!
I admit, friends, that I am an easily frustrated animal.  Generally, I have a hot temper and a short fuse.

This has presented an interesting dilemma for me as the owner of a reactive Saint Bernard, my favorite boy, Monte.  In working and living with a reactive dog, the human component in the training equation is critical for success.  Tension travels directly down the leash and is added to our dog’s environment.  Dogs are very sensitive to human emotion – to a change in voice, breathing pattern, and probably even body chemistry which may give them cues as to our emotional state.

It’s very important that handlers of reactive dogs develop a specific set of behaviors necessary to set them up for success in behavior modification.  We must be patient, in control of ourselves, and in short, operant.  I know very well how frustrating and discouraging setbacks or training plateaus can seem when they occur, and in these times, even the most “well-behaved” dog owner can slip into reactive behaviors of her own.  It is impossible to expect our dog’s to have self control if we are unable to control ourselves.

Occasionally, handlers of reactive dogs are so very stressed about their dog’s behavior that any situation involving exposure to a trigger causes the handler distress or anxiety.  It is hard to provide guidance and comfort to an anxious dog when  you are feeling anxious and uncomfortable.  In order to achieve successful rehabilitation, you must be a “rock of support” for your dog, someone your dog can have confidence and faith in to be his greatest advocate and safety provider.  It’s your job to make your reactive dog feel safe.  You have to earn his trust by being someone he can rely on.

This is often easier said than done.  Trust me, I know.  Handling Monte who is many times stronger than me was, initially, an anxiety-inducing situation for me. For more on Monte’s story, check out Dances with Dogs, my submission for Dogwise’s John Fisher Essay Scholarship 2009.

The classical conditioning exercises I used were very counter intuitive.  The concept made sense to me, but in practice, it felt all wrong – forced and unnatural.  Essentially, I had to become an actress.  I had to “act as if” I was confident and had control of the situation, despite my fears that neither was actually true.  I noted some elements of “smile therapy,” where forcing a smile can actually induce biochemical changes in your brain which create a feeling of happiness.

This is often easier said than done.  In these situations, the handler is usually past her “threshold.”  A dog may actually have a higher exposure threshold to the stimulus than the handler!  Believe it or not, our own behavior can actually manufacture a reaction in our dogs.  Sometimes a human, upon seeing the stimulus, immediately pulls up on the leash, breathing in rapid, shallow breaths, perhaps even using colorful language.  The dog may or may not have even noticed the stimulus but responds to his handler’s behavior, “Wow!  Something must be dangerous, mom’s freaking out!  I’ll freak out too…bark, lunge, bark, bark, bark, lunge, lunge, bark.”

If you have a reactive dog and find yourself in these situations, I highly advocate doing some practice “acting sessions,” first on your own and then with a well-socialized, non-reactive dog for a few sessions before working with your dog.


Believe it or not, my business partner Steve Benjamin has, in the past, advised students to classically condition their own positive emotional response to the stressor.  If the handler liked M & Ms, Steve would instruct her to have a baggie full in her pocket and, each time she was exposed to the trigger, to begin eating chocolate.  (As an added benefit to this particular human reinforcer, chocolate has been shown to stimulate the release of mood-enhancing chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain!)

Although this was never included in his recommendations, actual “smile therapy” may even be effective here. If you don’t mind your neighbors thinking you are a Crazy Dog Lady (I’m afraid there is little doubt for my own neighbors), you can even think of a funny joke as you feed yourself chocolate, see if you can literally laugh in the face of what you perceive to be a dangerous situation. At the very least, take some deep breaths and think about something that makes you happy.

Once you are comfortable in the presence of the trigger, try to do some of the counter conditioning, desensitization, or other behavior modification exercises incorporated in your dog’s rehabilitation plan with a well-socialized, non-reactive dog.  Although the other dog is already well-socialized to the trigger, the exercises should be a fun activity for the dog and serve to cement the owner’s original socialization efforts.  Select a dog that could care less about whatever your dog’s triggers are. Ask your trainer if you can work with her dog, if necessary (and appropriate). Start at a distance and gradually move closer as you are comfortable. Take a break if you get stressed, or end the session and try again another day. Progress at your own pace, moving forward when you are comfortable and confident.


In Emma Parson’s fantastic book Click to Calm, Emma provides handlers of reactive dogs with a wealth of techniques and how-to tutorials on how to desensitize a reactive dog to handler stress cues. I recommend this book without reservation to all handlers of reactive and aggressive dogs, and think that for many, this section may be one of the most helpful!  Remember to desensitize your dog to stress cues BEFORE you begin working with your dog in the presence of the trigger and in a number of environments without the trigger before relying on them in a behavior modification session.


Now that you have trained yourself in the skills necessary to being your dog’s advocate, his “behavioral body guard,” you ready to proceed in the training. When you feel confident and safe, your body language will send a better message to your dog. Instead of communicating, “Danger! Danger! Let’s freak out together!”, you will communicate a stronger, more reliable, message of leadership and safety to your dog, “It’s ok. I will keep you safe. We’re going to have fun, there is nothing to worry about.”

This is the kind of guidance and support reactive dogs rely and thrive on. Once you discover and conquer your own thresholds, you will have more empathy for the stress your dog feels in superthreshold situations, be better able to focus on his behavior instead of your own worries and concerns, and proceed more rapidly through any rehabilitation protocol.

He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion”

– Unknown