ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Behavior Thresholds

The definition of the word 'threshold' as it applies to behavior is "The point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect". When we refer to the threshold of a behavior, we are referring to the exact point at which the behavior changes or begins to break down. Every behavior has a threshold in regards to duration or frequency.

When training a dog, we are typically trying to increase the threshold of particular behaviors. For example, in stationary exercises like the sit-stay we train to increase the length of time the dog will maintain his sit position. In heeling, we train to increase the duration of the heeling behavior. Positive- reinforcement can be used to effectively increase the threshold of behaviors. If a dog in a sit-stay is given food at frequent intervals during the sit-stay he will be much more likely to maintain his position. A dog that is positively reinforced while moving forward in heel position will be much more inclined to stay in heel position for a longer period of time than he would without reinforcement. When introducing an exercise, frequent reinforcement is necessary to maintain the particular behavior. As training progresses, the frequency of reinforcement can typically be decreased (without losing the quality of behavior) if certain steps are taken.

To compete successfully in obedience trials, we must increase the threshold of behaviors between reinforcements. In other words, the dog must perform without reinforcement for a specific duration of time, or with a certain frequency of behavior. Getting to that point can be a real frustration for trainers if they don't understand the significance of behavior thresholds, and how to effectively increase them. The common maladies of great training sessions and poor ring performances, or dogs being "ring wise" or "burning out", are due to the trainers failure to understand behavior thresholds and schedules of reinforcement.

To increase the threshold of a behavior between reinforcements, the trainer must know the threshold of that behavior. For example, if the behavior in question is attention while heeling, the trainer must know the minimal length of time the dog will pay attention without reinforcement. Once that is known, the trainer can gradually increase the threshold of the behavior by reinforcing just prior to reaching the threshold, or just before losing their dog's attention. By way of example. let's assume the dog will. heel. attentively for a minimum of 5 seconds without reinforcement, and then he's inclined to look away. In other words, if the reinforcement doesn't appear after 5 seconds, he looks to his environment for "greener pastures" because his expected reinforcement was not forthcoming. By applying reinforcement at 4 seconds, you not only prevent the dog from looking away at the 5th second, you will gain an additional 5 seconds for a total of 9 seconds of attention because of the dog's behavior threshold between reinforcements. Next, you could reinforce after 7 seconds, then perhaps 10 seconds, gradually stretching the dog's threshold between reinforcements.

While increasing the dog's behavior threshold, you must also be sure you do not become predictable in your schedule of reinforcement, as doing so leads to less intense behaviors. For example, if you have worked your dog up to 15 seconds between reinforcements and you reinforce on a fixed schedule every 15 seconds or more, (Le." the dog must do at least15 seconds of heeling before there's any chance for reinforcement) your dog's performance will peak around the 15 second mark but will ebb at the start of the behavior. To maintain an intense behavior throughout, you must occasionally reinforce well before approaching the threshold, being unpredictable as to when that reinforcement might occur.

Janet A. Smith
copyright 2002 Janet Smith


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