The Glass of Water Analogy

Stimulus…arousal levels….sub-threshold….over-threshold …. These are words that most pet dog owners have never heard of in the context of training their dog.  Of course, we as dog trainers and behaviourists understand that there is an optimum level of arousal at which a dog can focus and learn.  Too much arousal and the dog loses focus, too little, they lose motivation and drive.  Getting the balance right is the key.  But explaining this concept to our clients can sometimes be a challenge.  The problem is that every single dog differs in how they react towards the stimulus in the environment around them.  So there is no one size fits all solution.  Some dogs lose focus the moment they go on a walk, others it’s when they see another dog, for others it might be a bird… the list is endless.  As a result owners must be provided with the knowledge and skill so they can assess their own dog’s state of mind at any given point in time.

Ok, typically, as trainers, we will say, train your dog in the house, then in the garden and gradually increase the distractions (i.e. the stimulus) out on walks.  In most cases this basic approach will work for the dogs and their owners.  But some dogs, (in particular cases that need specific behaviour modification) will need a little more fine tuning in terms of managing the levels of stimulus they are exposed to.  This is most important for aggression cases.

As a result, I developed an analogy to help my behaviour clients visualise where their dog is on a scale of arousal.  I called it the Glass of Water Analogy… because essentially that’s what it is!

As we know, instances or situations that increase stimulus have a cumulative effect on the dog, i.e. the more stimuli the higher the arousal levels.  I ask my clients to imagine their dog as an empty glass with a small hole in the bottom.  The stimulus is the water that is poured into the glass.  The more stimulating instances that occur, the more water that is in the dog’s glass.  When the glass is half full the dog is starting to become over aroused, or “over-threshold”.  When the glass overflows with water the dog will have an aggression reaction.  When attempting to train a dog and in particular change their behaviour, I explain to clients that it is vital to keep the dog’s “glass” below half full.  If their dog can eat and respond to cues they are not over stimulated.  The moment a dog stops eating or can no longer listen to their owner, their glass is on its way to filling up.  This is when the owner must find a way to reduce the stimulus by allowing the dog time to calm down and moving them away from the situation that is increasing their arousal levels. 

The size of the hole in the bottom of the glass is also important.  When a dog starts out on a behaviour modification programme, the hole will be small.  This means it will take longer for the water (i.e. stimulus) to drain from the glass and for the dog’s arousal levels to come back to normal.  A behaviour modification programme’s aim is to increase the size of that hole, so that when the dog is exposed to the stimulus they can still focus on their owner and they no longer have a negative reaction i.e. the water is poured into the glass and it goes right out the bottom!  When we achieve this, the dog can now cope with more levels of stimulus whether this is other dogs, strange men, children or whatever the original problem was for the dog.

I have found that this analogy helps people visualise the state of mind of their dog and provides them with a focus and goal.  Their goal is to keep their dogs glass just below half full!!! :)