Tell Me About Your Dog! - Part I

The SV celebrates 100 years this year, so for all intents and purposes Schutzhund training has been around for close to 100 years as well. In that time countless books have been written, and even more seminars have been taught, and let's not even start on how many conversations and discussions were held late into the night on the topic of dog training. In all these discussions about dogs, their qualities, and their training a lot of terminology is used. Being one of those people that often talk late into the night until I lose my voice, I have discovered that very few things in training are quite as diverse as the interpretations of terminology. Why is that?

Many terms used in dog training today had a certain meaning assigned to them through the way they were used. But often as the use of the word changed, so did its meaning. One of the most difficult things in discussions about training today is to establish a basis of understanding and interpretation of terminology. Usually once the people who are having the discussion are "on the same page" the discussion becomes much more productive. I feel that the concepts of dog training are often oversimplified. Traits are generalized and labeled in such a way that it has become virtually impossible to visualize a dog from its description.

We all have to assess dogs in order to have the correct approach in their training. To develop a training approach we need to know as much detail about the dog as possible. And to learn details about the dog we have to break things down into smaller pieces that make up the dog's motivations. So rather than generalizing something I notice about the dog I try to get a read on every separable trait I can find. Every trait is like a piece in a complex mechanism, and to ensure that it functions properly, we have to inspect every piece.

It is not my intent to "preach the gospel" and state undeniable truths. Dog training is not an exact science, it is educated guesswork. Hopefully, the more education we get, the more accurate the guesses will become. But we have to remind ourselves that they are still just guesses. This article is intended as an analytical discussion of the complexities involved in this type of guesswork. I hope it provokes some thought and leads to closer examination of details.

Stimulus Thresholds

This is the most logical first subject, since every response a dog shows is triggered by a stimulus. Webster defines threshold as "the point at which a stimulus is just strong enough to be perceived or produce a response." In other words it is the lowest level of stimulation that will trigger a response.

Unfortunately, this term is not used often enough when a dog is assessed. When we talk about drive, nerve, hardness, etc. most of the time we are in fact talking about the stimulus threshold of the dog, and nothing else. Let's use the example of pain to examine this. Pain is nothing more than discomfort, and every dog has a different point at which a particular physical stimulus becomes uncomfortable. In other words every dog perceives the sensation of pain at a different level of physical influence. This has nothing to do with the dog's character or temperament, it simply describes his body's response to a physical stimulus. We often use words like "hardness" to sum this up. But hardness has become a quality assessment. Can we really simplify it that much? I don't think so. I will address hardness a bit later in the article, for now I want to stay on the topic of thresholds.

Another example to help illustrate the point. Often dogs are assessed as being "defensive." That does that really mean? I guess that depends on the person making the assessment. But again, the term "defensive" leads to interpretation. The broad range of dogs that have this said about them are vastly different, yet they are all categorized with the same term. One thing that most of the dogs that are called "defensive" have in common is this. They all have a low stimulus threshold for defensive stimuli. You may say, "Isn't that the same thing." The answer would be, "No!" I will also discuss defense drive a little bit later, for now I will just say this about it. A dog's self defense drive is activated when the dog perceives a stimulus that leads him to feel concerned or worried about his own physical welfare. The response could be active defense (aggression) or passive defense (flight or other types of avoidance behaviors). And that encompasses all the dogs that are called "defensive," the only common thread is their stimulus threshold. Each of these dogs may require a different approach in training, depending much more on their response to the stimulus than to the stimulus threshold. Some dogs may have a very high stimulus threshold for defensive stimuli, this says nothing at all about their ability to handle the stimulus once they perceive it.

Prey drive also has stimulation thresholds. Many quality assessments are made about dog's prey drives when in reality all that was assessed was the stimulation threshold. This often leads to faulty conclusions about the dogs and consequently less than optimal training. A dog may perceive a prey trigger stimulus very easily. So it is easy to activate the prey drive the dog has. But this in no way means that the dog also has good prey drive. The quality and strength of the dog's prey drive requires separate careful assessment that goes beyond the stimulus threshold. Just look at puppy testing. How often do we see puppies that are very easily stimulated in prey and find that the puppy grown up falls far short of the expectations we had for him? Again, under more careful examination we see that the ease of reaching stimulation is a different assessment category than the quality of the drive itself.

Another example is the stimulus threshold for noises. I believe that the test currently in place to test so called "noise-sensititvity" does nothing more than allow a small assessment of the noise stimulus threshold. My friend Thomas Baumann also views the current test as an inadequate assessment of noise sensitivity. He is currently conducting research into this matter at his private training facility as well as at the police service dog school (Naustadt/Sachsen/Germany) he heads up. He set up a training room with high-tech stereo equipment over which he plays a collection of about 15 different noises for three minutes with short pauses between the different noises (ranging from a bicycle bell to breaking glass, to engine noises and fireworks) to each dog who is left alone in the room while being tested. The results of these tests were amazing. While some dogs appeared completely unfazed initially some broke down completely after about one minute. Others initially showed reactions to the sounds, light fear or aggression, but some of those steadied themselves and handled the test fine. The range of reactions included panic stricken flight, cowering in a corner, standing completely frozen shivering with fear, aggresive reactions and neutrality. This research is far from over, and more researchers will become involved to interpret the final findings of the studies. For now, it is enough to allow me to illustrate that noise sensitivity is much harder to assess than often thought. And once again the thresholds of when a noise becomes bothersome to a dog is an important factor in the assessment. To determine more than that one has to look at the reactions, and interpret those with great thought and detail. Again oversimplifying a character assessment of the dog does not help us to get a clear picture of who he is.

Stimulation thresholds have to be assessed individually and for every separate assessment category. They represent sub-categories to every trait a dog may exhibit. Many dogs may have identical stimulation thresholds, but their responses could vary a great deal. It is not uncommon that the thresholds are different levels in each category. I will refer to stimulation thresholds probably in every subject still left to discuss which hopefully will help to further illustrate where and how they fit into reading a dog. The conclusions I would like the reader to draw from the discussion of stimulation thresholds is that they require separate examination, that they are only parts of traits, that they should be designated separately, and that they in themselves tell us nothing about the quality of a dog.

One final comment on thresholds. Many can be manipulated through experiences. In other words, training can raise or lower some thresholds of stimulation. The process of raising a stimulus threshold is what we call de-sensitizing. If this process is done correctly, a dog will require a much higher level of stimulation to show a response. Stimulus thresholds are lowered by setting up situations which will pre-dispose the dog to perceive a stimulus at a lower level. While in the beginning it is actually a combination of stimulating factors that trigger a response, if it is done correctly a single low level stimulus may later be enough to trigger a response.


Hardness is another term that is used too broadly. Dogs are generalized with this label. But what does hardness mean? Let's have a closer look at it. The Swiss behaviorist Dr. E. Seiferle defined this term the following way. "The ability to take negative influences and experiences such as pain, punishment, defeat in a fight without being affected significantly at the moment they happen or in the long term." In this definition, it is very clear, that the dog in question has to perceive the influence he is experiencing as adverse or negative and deal with it without being significantly affected by it.

When a dog is called hard, many interpretations are possible, unless more detailed examinations are done to truly assess a dog?s hardness. In my mind, the first logical factor to assess is the dog's stimulus thresholds. For example, one of the influences specifically mentioned in Dr. Seiferle's definition is pain. But as I have already mentioned, dogs' pain thresholds vary a great deal. If a dog has a very high pain threshold, that means it takes a pretty severe physical influence to cause the dog discomfort. But if the dog does not perceive a physical influence as painful, can we really say that he is "taking" pain? I don't think we can. Not perceiving the negative gives us no indication on how the dog would deal with something negative.

I would say that most of the time when someone speaks of a dog's hardness, all we really learn about the dog is his pain threshold and his level of reactivity. What is reactivity? Well, by that I just mean a tendency to show a reaction. It doesn't seem to matter nowadays what kind of reaction a dog shows. A dog that shows any reaction is too often automatically labeled as not as hard as a dog that shows no reaction. Often even positive and strong reactions are interpreted as signs of weakness. While dogs that either are not very reactive and/or have high stimulus thresholds are often called hard.

I guess we could break down hardness into three areas. Pain-hardness, hardness to the helper, and hardness to the handler. These are the main areas where the term hardness is used. I think pain-hardness can simply be called pain threshold. It is in fact the level of physical influence that the dog perceives as uncomfortable or painful. It makes no statement about the dog's character or temperament. Hardness to the helper depends clearly on the dog?s threshold for defensive stimuli. A dog that does not feel threatened by the helper should not be called hard. Hardness to the handler depends on how easily a dog is affected by the emotions of the handler. Yes, I did mean to say emotions. Naturally there are overlaps in these three areas. Often dogs link a neutral stimulus like pain to the helper, or the handler in which case the threshold of stimulation relating to helper or handler becomes a factor in how the dog deals with the pain. Think about dogs that can't wear a pinch collar for obedience because they would crumble. Many of those same dogs will pull their owner on a bicycle by a Springer fastened to a pinch collar without blinking an eye. The difference is that there is no handler influence during the bike ride. Another example, dogs who have no problem if their owner slaps them with a soft stick, some even get excited by it. Those dogs if their thresholds for defensive stimuli are low will show extreme reactions (positive or negative) if a helper were to do exactly the same thing.

Another factor that greatly affects a dog?s ability to ?endure? something is his drives. I chose the word ?endure? to differentiate it from the word ?take? that Seiferle used in his definition of hardness. For example, a dog may endure a negative influence to satisfy his prey drive, that is not the same as being able to take the same negative influence in a situation where his prey drive is not activated.

The standardized testing for hardness in Schutzhund trials, in breed suitability tests, and in breed surveys are generally the two stick hits during protection work. This gives us barely a glimpse at the dog and nowhere close to a detailed picture. The things we learn are quite useful, and informative, but I don't think they tell us much about the dog's hardness.

I hope I am not confusing anybody. I no more have a perfect system for assessing hardness in dogs than anyone else does. But a superficial label is not enough, we have to dig deeper. We have to keep the definition of hardness in mind and look at all the details surrounding the situation and keep all observations in their proper perspectives to get as accurate a picture about the dog as possible. This is crucial for making the right training decisions.

Continued in Part 2

Armin Winkler has been the instructor at many schutzhund training seminars. He has been training schutzhund dogs since 1976 and is a USA member who lives in British Columbia. His English translation of Dr. Helmut Raiser’s Der Schutzhund is available from Armin Winkler Publishing, 3503 Lakeshaw Road, RR#7, Duncan, BC Canada V9L-4W4 or by phone (250) 746-8989.

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