CU works wonders to not only ease the life of overnoticers, overreactive or anxious dogs, it also provides a foundation for every single working or family dog out there. CU trainers stress that attention is a skill that can and should be taught separate from other tasks. Attention, focus and the ability to calm herself down are key skills that help a dog navigate her life – be it as a performance dog, a family pet or a dog adjusting to life in a big and busy city, to mention but a few.Anyone who has tried CU on their dog will agree that It works. But why does it work? Knowing about the underlying neuropsychological procedures will help you understand why CU training is so effective and enable you to design your very own tailor-made CU exercises for your dog rather than just following “recipes” developed by others. Furthermore, I hope that this article will show that CU is not just a fuzzy hit-and-miss training philosophy that will work for some dogs but not for others. Rather, it gives you and your dog a toolbox to influence your dog’s neuropsychological wiring, so to speak, in ways that make it easier for her to cope with the environment. And last but not least, it may help you to better understand your dog.
Neuropsychological implications of the threshold
CU devotees know to always work below threshold, that is to say to lower criteria to a point where we can be sure our dog will succeed, and to avoid causing over-arousal. For example, when working with a dog-reactive dog, we’ll keep our distance to other dogs. Rather than “flooding” him with the company of another dog, we’ll stay at a distance where he’s not worried. Depending on the individual, that may be the length of a soccer field, across the street, ten meters or two meters. For a dog suffering from separation anxiety, this means we wouldn’t leave her alone any longer than she’s comfortable being alone. Depending on the individual, that might mean 30 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes or two hours.
The threshold is the point where a dog overreacts – e.g. the distance where where the dog-reactive dog starts lunging, jumping into the leash and barking, or the time after which a dog suffering from separation anxiety starts getting worried and working herself up.
We can look at the threshold as the frontier separating “thinking brain” from “instinct brain”, or as the line separating cognition from emotion. Below threshold, the actions are controlled by reflection and conscious decisions. Over threshold, the emotions take over and reactions are automatic rather than deliberate. Whether an action is based on cognition or emotion depends on whether it is dominated by the cerebral cortex or an area of the limbic system called the amygdala. Both cerebral cortex and limbic system deal with environmental stimuli and work together when causing the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that generate a response. However, they are inversely proportional: the more active the cerebral cortex, the less active is the limbic system, and vice versa. Depending on which area dominates the reaction, we either get a predominantly cognitive response (limbic system is dominant) or an emotional response (amygdala is dominant). That is to say, when we work below threshold, the cerebral cortex dominates behavior and we get a deliberate response; when working over threshold, the amygdala is dominant and we get an overreactive response.
These are important points to consider in dog training. Working below threshold, a dog will be able to take in and process information, learn new things and pay attention. Because his actions are dictated by the cerebral cortex, he’s in a receptive state of mind; an ideal training condition and, moreover, a state of mind that lets your dog relax and be comfortable.
On the other hand, a dog who’s over threshold is subject to behavior triggered by the amygdala. His responses to environmental stimuli will be emotional, indeliberate and unreflected. In this state of mind, it is neurologically impossible for a dog to think clearly, to process information “objectively” and to take in new tasks. A disobedient dog over threshold isn’t stubborn; rather, his brain and hence behavior are dominated by the amygdala, while the cognitive cerebral cortex is blocked. Rather than getting mad at her for failing to listen to your cues in a distracting environment, you should ask yourself how you can change the environment/lower criteria in order to enable your dog to get back in a cerebral cortex state of mind and succeed.
Acute stress causes high activity in the amygdala. The dog’s body prepares for fight/flight/freeze/flirt, and training, attention or obedience become neurologically impossible. This is why the common practice among dog trainers to ask a dog to perform among all kinds of conditions in all kinds of situations from the beginning is counterproductive and doesn’t tend to work. Effective training starts well below threshold and only gently and slowly raises criteria. With mutual trust and practice, the threshold recedes. You may then raise criteria at the same speed the threshold withdraws, but never cross it.
2. Why targeting lets your dog stay in “thinking brain”
What do you do if your dog is reactive in a situation you can’t or don’t want to avoid? How do you get her threshold to recede without flooding (1) her with stressful experiences?
Leslie McDevitt suggests targeting in order to get your dog to focus and make it easier for him to stay in his “thinking brain” in a distracting or stressful environment. In this context, targeting means turning environmental stimuli into cues. This could be tactile targets such as getting out of the car and (A) targeting the door to the training facility, then (2) targeting the dog’s crate, and then (4) targeting her mat etc. With the help of intermediate targets, a seemingly long and distracting path is broken down into little steps that are easier for the dog (or human) to take.
The targets could also be visual, such as using scary things as a cue to play the “Look at That” game and earn treats.
Indeed, by means of targeting strategies, overreactive dogs are more likely to stay calm. Neuropsychologically speaking, why is that?
If a dog’s attention and focus are held by a well-known game, the cerebral cortex dominates his response. As mentioned above, cerebral cortex and limbic system are inversely proportional, and the activity of the limbic system is kept low when your dog operates from his “thinking brain”. Keeping the cerebral cortex going in stressful situations helps your dog to cope with them rather than going over threshold. Targeting games are a very effective way to accomplish this: the distracting environment itself provides the cues for the cerebral-cortex dominated behavior, and the more you practice, the more you accelerate calm default behavior.
An example: Phoebe knows hand-targeting. If we’re about to cross a busy street, she sometimes gets excited and wants to chase cars: for her, the cars are a trigger causing action in the amygdala. One strategy I use for dealing with this is that I ask her to target my hand with her mouth while we’re waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green: touch my hand on the floor, in the air, next to you, behind you. Phoebe likes the touch game, and it keeps her focused on me rather than the traffic. Also, the more often I play the touch game with her in this situation, the more she’ll get used to not lunging towards the cars. While focusing on my hand, she peripherally takes in the traffic without getting emotionally glued to it, and while this experience is repeated every time we play the touch game near a busy street, she gets desensitized to the traffic trigger. Nota bene: in behavioral therapy, desensitizing only works as long as you stay below threshold!
(1) Check back soon for an article about why flooding is not an ideal way to deal with reactivity or anxiety in dogs.