Cumulative Thresholds for Aggression

We recently posted an article about why pet professionals should do risk assessments of the animals they work with. It served as a reminder that any pet can bite and the safest thing to do is to gather information about the likelihood that the animal may bite in particular situations.  Whether you are a behavior consultant working with aggressive dogs, a shelter-worker evaluating dogs for adoption or a groomer handling dogs on a daily basis, gathering information about potentially dangerous behaviors and situations (a risk assessment) is important. 

But as we all know, aggression can be complicated.  Several things might cause a particular dog or cat to become aggressive, and simply asking “What does your cat not like to have done to him”, while a good start, may not be sufficiently predictive of what the cat is likely to do.  You may find that a client’s cat doesn’t like to be held in a certain way.  That by itself may not cause the cat to bite you, but if the cat also had been frightened in the previous few minutes because a dog had walked near her, handling might then trigger an aggressive reaction.

This idea that different stimuli or situations may act together to trigger a reaction that no single one would trigger is known as the cumulative threshold model for behavior. This phenomenon has been described in the behavior literature for many years, but we credit Jean Donaldson for introducing it into the world of dog training.

The threshold is the level of some stimulation that elicits a behavior, and while one stimulus, such as handling, wouldn’t trigger biting, when fear of the dog is added to the mix, it pushes the cat over her aggression threshold and she bites.  Knowing that the cumulative effect of stimuli can elicit behavior that otherwise wouldn’t be seen can help to explain why some behaviors seem to happen “out of the blue,” and why an animal might become aggressive in one situation but not in another that looks similar. 

Cumulative thresholds can be seen for fears, barking, separation anxiety and other emotionally driven behaviors. The bottom line for pet professionals is to carefully evaluate all of the potential stimuli or situations that can lead an animal to become fearful, agitated or aggressive, and to try to identify the specific combinations that are most likely to create problems.

If you want to know more about how the cumulative threshold model of behavior can help you understand and resolve aggression problems, we recommend Kathy Sdao’s webinar, “The Bite Threshold Model: Implications for Resolving Canine Aggression” , available On Demand at

This month we are offering a special discounted package.  When you register for BOTH Kathy’s course AND our  “Risk Assessments of Aggressive Animals”  course through the end of September, we’ll give you a 20% discount.  Register for both at and enter the coupon code “back to school”  in our shopping cart at check out to receive your 20% discount.  

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