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Understanding Your Dog's Stress Threshold

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Two dogs are on leads and sitting together, looking up at the camera with their mouths open in a happy position. On the left is a brown and white dog that is a miniature poodle and labrador mix, she has on a blue lead. On the right is a tricolour beagle, she has on a lighter blue lead.

You're out walking your reactive dog and something triggers them but unlike normally, this time they just don't calm back down and you can't work out why? They've likely hit their stress threshold. Let's take a look.

A stress threshold is the limit of stress that your dog can reach before they become completely overwhelmed. You know when you've had one of those days and then you get home and make toast and burn it and it tips you over the edge and you cry? And normally you would never think of crying over toast but it's just that nothing has gone right that day? You've hit your stress threshold- and it happens to your reactive dog too!

To adequately describe a stress threshold I'm going to use a direct example, and a cute little scale, going from 0-10. We're going to use Daisy, a reactive black labrador. Daisy is reactive to dogs, cars and loud noises and hasn't had any prior professional training.

This is our lovely blank scale for our visual learners. Down below I'll drop a completed version for Daisy, our reactive lab.

Image Description: A scale going from 0-10 in increments of 1 with tally marks for each number. The scale has a pale blue background and the scale itself is blue with navy numbers.

We set off on a walk with Daisy, she's had a nice day so far and her stress level is 0. After a few minutes we walk past a dog, and Daisy reacts. Her stress level shoots up to 3, but we walk on and she calms down. She calms down to a 1, not quite the 0 she was at before.

Next we're walking down a street and two things happen at once, a loud van drives past at a fast speed and a dog appears in the garden of the house next to us and barks at the gate. Daisy reacts to both things and her stress level shoots right up to a 7. We continue walking and she calms down to a 5.

If we were to continue walking without triggers, she would be able to calm down all of the way but now we are walking and a car goes past. One car on it's own usually isn't so bad for her but because she was already at a 5, she was on edge and her stress level shoots up to an 8.

This time, Daisy doesn't calm down. 8 is her Stress Threshold.

Here is Daisy's Stress Threshold scale. It doesn't include the times she calms down but it does show how her reactions built up over time.

Image Description: The same scale as above except 0-3 include "Reacts at dog", 3-7 include "Reacts at van and dog" and 8 says "Stress Threshold"

When your dog hits their stress threshold, the only thing you can do is to take them home and try again tomorrow. (With correct training, of course.) Your dog's stress threshold will fluctuate too! Some days it'll be a 10 and you'll pass all the triggers. Sometimes it'll be a 3, and you'll have one reactive outburst and that'll be it.

With training, we can do three things. We can increase her Stress Threshold so that it takes much longer for things to add up, in this example her ST was a 9, with training it could be 15, 20 or 40. We can speed up her recovery time after a reaction, so she can calm down quicker in-between triggers and prevent her from hitting the ST. And we can work to build her confidence and eliminate triggers, so less raises her stress levels to begin with.

By the way, these numbers are completely made up. There's no actual stress scale with numbers or scores. Like everything with dogs, stress and stress responses are completely individual and never one-size-fits-all. The stress threshold is a concept more than an actual scale and it's purpose is just to help reactive dog owners understand why sometimes it seems like your dog can take on the world and sometimes they shut down after passing one dog.

If you need help with your reactive dog get in touch and we can help you get started on your training journey. We truly love working with reactive dogs, there's nothing more rewarding than the happy tears of owners after their first reaction-free walk.

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