Thresholds and Prey Drive

The phrase “over threshold” is used a lot by dog trainers, particularly those who work with reactive or aggressive dogs. It’s really based on the concept of doorways. A front door represents the threshold between being inside and outside. Crossing it means going from one environment to a different environment.

When dog trainers talk about thresholds, they are referring to the dog going from one emotional state to another. A reactive dog may be completely calm about seeing a person with a walking stick 10 metres away from them. At 5 metres they may cross the threshold from calm to “there is something odd there” and their behaviour may go from calmly sniffing to glancing at the person. At 3 metres they may cross the threshold from “there is something odd there” to “I’m worried about this” and their behaviour may go from glancing to staring at the person and not being able to look away. At 2 metres they may cross the threshold from “I’m worried about this” to “there is threat here” and they may go from staring to barking and lunging.

It’s just an example to show that there are loads and loads of thresholds going on for dogs all the time. They are useful to pay attention to but there is a lot of complexity so try not to get downhearted if it does seem complicated. I like to see understanding dog training and behaviour work as if it is a puzzle because that helps it feel less overwhelming when I’m trying to figure something out.

What I’ve described above is a typical sort of description for reactivity, but thresholds are not just about negative emotions and reactive behaviour. If you think about your own dog’s responses to the approach of a mealtime and each of the individual things you see them do as that time gets closer, I bet you can describe lots of thresholds that are crossed.

Given all of this, it might not surprise you to hear that thresholds also have an impact on prey drive and on the behaviour that you might see from your dog.

Your dog will have loads of thresholds that relate to prey animals and will depend on things like how close the animal is, is the animal moving, how fast is it moving, how suddenly did it appear, how recently was the animal where your dog is now. This is not an exhaustive list by any means you may well have ideas in your head that you know impact on your dog that I haven’t mentioned. Do email me if you do. I love to hear about what everybody’s experiences are.

In the book How Dogs Work, Ray Coppinger and Mark Feinstein discuss thresholds in relation to predatory behaviour and what they say is fascinating. They talk about intrinsic thresholds that are part of each individual dog’s genetics. In this case, the thresholds are between one stage of the predatory motor sequence and the next. The book has an image of it with a border collie at a sheepdog trial stalking a sheep and there is line to demonstrate the threshold between stalk and chase for that dog.

It is important to remember that there are thresholds that some dogs will never cross. My dog, Cuillin, never crossed from chase to grab-bite. Cuillin’s real interest in prey was following their smell and sometimes if he was doing that while chasing an animal and he got close to the animal, he wouldn’t grab them. Instead, he would pause to let the animal get to safety and then he would put his nose down and run around sniffing where the animal went. Grab-bite wasn’t in Cuillin’s behavioural repertoire when it came to other animals.

It hasn’t happened but I suspect that if my young working cocker, Ren, was running next to a rabbit that she would cross the threshold to grab-bite. She wants to hold things in her mouth and carry them around so it makes sense to me that she would cross that threshold.

The other point of interest from that book is that some dogs of the same breed will be bred deliberately to have thresholds that the dogs will cross more quickly. The book talks about border collies, but it is the same in working bred spaniels too. The dogs bred for field trials are quicker to react and will move through the predatory motor sequence faster. Those dogs can work faster and look flashier, so they are great for trials. Whereas the dogs bred to work with farmers or game keepers will reach each threshold more slowly. Those dogs need to be able to work all day, so they need to conserve energy and they also need to be able to control themselves for long periods of time. They need to take longer to cross each threshold and I suspect; they also need to be able to calm down easily as well.

I suspect that while it might not be possible to alter each dog’s inherent thresholds, other factors might sometimes make them shorter. A dog who is sitting still may be able to stay sitting and not chase a bird that flutters in front of them, but the same dog might chase the bird if it flutters in front of them while they are running.

Wow – I talked about thresholds for longer than I meant to, but it is a fascinating subject. If you’re not sure about what the predatory motor sequence is, you can find out more here.

If you are reading this because your dog has a high prey drive and you want to understand them better, here’s what to do:

💖 Start to look for the situations that cause your dog to cross predatory motor sequence thresholds and note them down.

💖 Start to look for the very early signs that your dog may be about to cross a threshold and note them down.

Having that information to hand will help you not be blindsided by your dog suddenly taking off out of the blue.

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Hi - I'm Tracey.

I am the founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd and the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion.

I want to show you how easy and fun it can be to have a high prey drive dog.

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