Thresholds: what you need to know about your dog’s panic

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had something push us to our breaking point, to our threshold – and dogs are no different.

What pushes your buttons? Right now for me, it’s my antique computer. I want to throw the thing out of the window. Luckily, I’m holding it together, I grind on and the computer remains on my desk.

Dogs know this feeling too. Keeping your dog sub-threshold is vital to treating separation anxiety. But to do that, you need to learn how to spot the signs of accelerating anxiety.

dog sleeping on laptop
Not everyone gets frustrated by their computer.

What are thresholds and why do they matter?

Imagine standing in line for groceries. The person at the front has an item without a price. The next person can’t find their card. You’re normally a-ok with queuing. But your stress levels rise.

Then the payment machine rejects your card. You lose your cool, flip out and snark at the assistant.

The machine gets sorted, you pay, and bristle out of the store. You feel terrible about snarking. But you had an emotional response to something stressful. You went over-threshold.

Dogs have thresholds too

This is how an anxious or aggressive dog feels. He starts off ok, then something triggers him. He heads towards the first level of anxiousness and manages to hold it together. But, if things around him worsen, then “boom,” he goes over his threshold. Once over the threshold, he can’t think straight, and emotions take over.

Imagine if every time you went to the grocery store, you had the experience described above, would you start to dread grocery shopping? Maybe you already dread grocery shopping!

Your anxious dog dreads you going out because he recalls so many bad experiences of being left.

Learning about your dog’s threshold

When your dog goes over-threshold, you add another bad episode to the anxiety bank. It starts to feel like you will never get out of the red.

So you can see why thresholds are so critical when we’re training anxious dogs. We’re trying to show your dog you going out isn’t scary. To do so, we need to expose him to positive experiences when he’s on his own.

But, how do you make sure your dog stays under-threshold? Unlike with people, we can’t ask dogs how they are doing. So when we’re treating separation anxiety, it’s all about body language. Let’s go over a few canine communication pointers.

“He’s perfectly fine.”

This is how your dog looks most of the time. His face and body are loose and relaxed. Whether he’s sitting, standing or lying, he doesn’t carry tension. His eyes are relaxed, and he might even give you a doggie smile.

“Holding it together.”

Your dog beings to feel uncomfortable. He’s alert. He worries. But he doesn’t panic, and he doesn’t freak out. He holds it together-just. You might start to see panting, lip licking, furrowed brows, his eyes looking “harder”, and you might see the whites of his eyes. His body will carry more tension, and his face and ears will lose that relaxed look.

Chocolate labrador on with woman on sofa

“Freaking out.”

Your dog has lost it. He can no longer hold it together. He’s gone over his threshold.

The more obvious signs are him barking, whining, trembling, shaking, or the chewing or destroying routine starting. Any pacing, panting or lip licking will become exaggerated. Some dogs don’t show their fear so overtly. They may freeze or make themselves small. With these pups it’s important to zero in on their face: eyes, ears, and mouth especially.

When your dog panics and he passes a tipping point, you will see a full-on meltdown. His fear is taking over, and it can be hard to help him calm down.

We know human sufferers of panic attacks often experience vicious cycles of panic. The physical side effects of panic are so unpleasant the sufferer panics at feeling panicked. It’s possible dogs also find panic attacks unbearable. Hence, they were right to think you going out was a bad thing because every time you go out, they feel terrible.

It’s essential to avoid letting your dog freak out. We need to break the rigid association between home alone and fear.

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How can you tell when your dog is over-threshold?

You need to become a wiz at observing body language. Relaxed body language is straightforward. Freaking out can be easy to see too. But, the tipping point of “holding it together” is harder. That’s where video footage comes in.

Record footage of your dog home alone, and see if you spy the early indications of stress. Do this “live” so you can intervene before he tips over his threshold.

If you’re stuck and unable to work out when your dog is starting to fret, reach out to a dog trainer. Trainers spot the more subtle tips offs you might overlook. And we’ll teach you your dog’s unique pointers so that you’ll get better at stepping in before full-blown panic hits.

By keeping your dog sub-threshold at all times, you’ll teach him being alone isn’t terrifying. He’ll learn to cope on his own, and those panic attacks can become a thing of the past. If you need help dealing with your dog's home alone stress, book a free consultation.