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!!! :)


I like your analogy, and I think it works in the other direction as well.  In comparing notes with other dog mushers who share my interest in behavior and training, several of us have noticed that some of our best leaders seem to learn best when they are in a moderately stimulating environment - i.e. when actually running ahead of a team as opposed to running as a "single" dog in front of a runner, bicycle, or kick-bike. 

Have you observed cases in which dogs that are understimulated learn less efficiently than most?


A good dog is so much a nobler beast than an indifferent man that one sometimes gladly exchanges the society of one for that of the other.” William Francis Butler

Excellenet oberseration Swanny. The motivation to work as well as the gumption to push through the low levels of stress necessary to facilitate learning generally require a certain amount of stimulation/enthusiasm/alertness. Unless, of course, overstimulation is the problem.


Kelly Gorman Dunbar Editor, Dog Star Daily

This is a very hard post for me to write, but the lesson here hit home really hard this week. I live in an area that is overrun with deer. We have them in our yards; we have them on downtown streets; we have them in our parks and I pretty much run into deer each time I take my dogs on a walk or off leash hike. In fact, it's been a topic of conversation among residents of my city. I'm sure development has a lot to do with it. We've taken away their habitat. 

I was picking berries on Tuesday and knew I was about a quarter to half mile from the freeway. I called both my dogs back to leash them up to make sure they were safe while walking to the car. They turned towards me and were coming when a deer ran between us. The dogs ran in pursuit, jumping a 4-ft fence. I screamed hysterically for them to come. My female dog who is almost 5 came right back; my male dog who is around 2 did not. He then came back but did not want to jump the fence back to me. He ran up and down the length of the fence and then turned and ran through the woods and down a steep hill into the freeway. I heard cars honking and saw him running through the median to the southbound lanes. I knew I had to get my female safe before looking for him, so was running to my car with her when I heard a thump and my dog scream. I looked and there he was lying in the middle of one of the lanes.He had been running back towards me. I can't even express the horror of it all. I was sure he was dead.

I kept running, put my female in the car and ran through a gate and to where he was lying. Some good Samaritans had stopped, although the truck that hit him did not. The lady grabbed me as I was crying and saying, "He's my dog." She hugged me and said, "He's alive." I was able to pull him out of the traffic and after talking with 911 determined that I would have to carry my 70 lb. dog to my car through grass and a ditch. It was an absolute nightmare that I never hope to repeat. I didn't know how injured he was internally but he was conscious and in shock. I fell with him once and collapsed onto my knees a couple of times before reaching my car. 

He spent the night in our local animal emergency clinic. His head was gashed open above his eye, but x-rays revealed no broken bones or internal injuries other than some abrasions on his lungs. I was able to pick him up the next morning and take him to my regular vet to stitch up his head after he made sure his lungs were still okay. He's been home with me since Wed. after work and I am thanking God for saving his life and the life of others on the freeway. It could have been so much worse.

He is in pain, but the vets keep telling me that I am lucky he has a pit bull head and that they are built like tanks and have an amazingly high pain tolerance. He is lying at my feet right now, looking into my eyes. 

So I will be contacting my trainer to work with me on recall for deer. I realize he is young, but never in a million years did I think this would happen to me--the ultra-responsible owner. This blog sure hit home. I just hope that with work we can avoid this from ever happening again. I live near the Cascade Mountains, so when not doing the therapy dog work, agility, etc. most of my time with the dogs is spent hiking, wading creeks, rivers, etc. The thing that active dogs like to do best. I do not want to deny this for my boy, but I also never want to experience what he and I went through this past week ever again. Shame on me! I feel like I failed him.

Hi Swanny,

You've hit the nail on the head.  Well done and thank you for that observation :)

Lisa Whelan PG Dip BSc CPDT HNC APDT(853)(UK) CAP2

Pit-mix Mom - Please don't beat yourself up over this.  There is no possible way that one can predict and train for every possible situation you might encounter, and the opportunity to chase deer is truly a HUGE distraction.  I'd say that your own glass is more than half-full.  Your dog is still alive and apparently will heal and be healthy and happy again, and you now know of a major, previously unforseen distraction and you have the opportunity to work with your trainer to resolve a potential issue. 

Although most trainers stress the importance of a "bomb-proof" recall, I don't believe that 100% bomb-proof recall is achievable - just because we can't predict every possible trigger, or the relative strength of those unforeseen triggers.  I have a real good feeling about what my dogs CAN break away and recall from (or run past without deviating from their course), but not so good an idea of what they can't. 

Have you considered training your dogs for bikejoring, scootering or canicross?  The advantage of those back-country "dry-land" mushing sports is that the dogs are under a little bit more physical control, as they are in harness and attached to the vehicle or, in the case of canicross, to you.  That would not necessarily prevent them from bolting if the distraction is strong enough, though.  However, having the dog attached to a vehicle with good brakes can be an excellent training tool. 

In any event, I'm sorry for your frightening experience and I'm glad to plan to follow through to prevent it from being repeated. 



A good dog is so much a nobler beast than an indifferent man that one sometimes gladly exchanges the society of one for that of the other.” William Francis Butler

Thank you for your kind words and encouragment, Swanny. My confidence has definitely taken a hit. I'm scared to let Domino off the leash! We drove on the freeway today near where it happened and I almost burst into tears. 

I have thought of training Dom to pull a cart. He's got so much energy and he's willing to do anything we ask of him. Great ideas. Thanks for the suggestions. We went on his first leash walk today after the accident and you'd never know he had been down and out. He's the same old Dom, thank goodness.