Last week, I walked this beautiful pitty and his terrier brother. I was pet sitting and was told that they pull and are reactive, so I knew what to expect. I took them to walk past a school that was out of session very early in the morning, to avoid as many triggers as possible. On the way back, however, we walked past a yard that had dogs. Remi was barking and lunging. He ignored treats, calling his name, and only by picking up speed and keeping momentum did we get past. Once we were clear and I was able to regain Remi's focus, I took a minute to calm him down. I stroked him slowly and talked to him calmly. I asked him to sit and pet him calmly. Once everyone was calmed down, we set off again. Round the corner a cat scurried under a parked car, and Remi was set off again. Except this time it was much harder to keep control of him, and it took much longer to calm him down. Why?
It is called trigger stacking. Imagine you had a crappy day at work and all you wanted to do is go home and relax with some take out in front of the television. Instead, when you get to your car it won't start. You call a tow truck and have a coffee while you wait. When you finally get home, the house is a mess and your kids haven't had dinner yet. You realize your utility bill is overdue. Any one of these triggers is an annoying inconvenience, but stacked all together, and you might just have a melt down or snap.
To understand trigger stacking, you must understand how triggers stack up to affect your dog. Whenever your dog is exposed to a trigger which causes stress, the dog's brain is flooded with stress hormones. Eventually, the dog goes over threshold and reacts by barking and lunging. Following are tips on how to prevent this from happening.
- Identify your dog's specific triggers. Does the dog get stressed getting groomed or at the vet's office? Observe your dog closely when he is dealing with his triggers. Here's an example of how a dog may undergo trigger stacking. Fido is a 2 year old Aussie, he gets stressed at times. On Friday he goes see the vet, and they take him to the back to get blood drawn and a urine sample. Because he is not cooperating, they decide to muzzle him. Once home, his owner is expecting guests-a whole family with children comes to visit when Fido would like to rest. The kids annoy him, trying to chase him and get him to wear a scarf. Later that evening, the owner has to force feed him his pills which he hates. Rover gets very little space that day. The day after, he is taken to the dog park, where he is forced to deal with a rude dog who likes to chase and hump. Then, he has obedience classes but for some reason he is unable to focus and the trainer physically forces him to sit by pushing on his rump. Once home, he wants to sleep but he has to take his pills again. Later, the children want to play with him and cuddle. One of the kids tries to hug him, and for the first time ever, Fido shows his teeth. Fortunately, the issue is taken seriously and the dog is finally left alone to rest to recover from all the cumulative stress.
- Learn how to see the signs of stress. Some signs can be subtle or hard to identify such as lip licks, turning the head, yawning, losing hair, others are obvious such as shaking, whining and trying to flee.
- Learn your dog's threshold. How much can he handle before hitting threshold? Is he bothered if a dog is 30 feet away or if it's a much closer interaction? Does he tolerate children until they start interacting with him? Is he alright at the vet, but starts getting nervous when he is getting handled? Recall past events where he acted stressed and evaluate where his threshold was and in the future let him stay well below that.
- To prevent trigger stacking, manage your dog's environment. If your dog is annoyed by close interactions with children, crate him. If your dog doesn't like other dogs in his face, keep him away from places where there are off leash dogs. If your dog is scared of shots, try to see if the vet can come out in the parking lot to give them.
- Also, look for help. To prevent trigger stacking from affecting your dog permanently, you may want to let him face his fears in a controlled way that keeps him under threshold and allows to change his underlying emotions. Learn about desensitization and counter conditioning. You may want to call Walkie Doggies to learn how to implement these behaviors.
- Play it safe. When dogs are under a lot of stress or are sick, their bite threshold lowers. This means they are more likely to bite. Do your best to not put your dog in a position he cannot handle. These dogs are not aggressive and they don't need to be euthanized, all they need is an effective stress reduction plan. And remember: When dogs are stressed they release the hormone cortisol (a stress hormone) which remains in the body for quite some time. During this time, your dog's threshold will be lowered which means that should he be exposed to several triggers during this recovery time, it will have a cumulative effect making him more likely to react.