Understanding Trigger Stacking in Dogs: Managing Overwhelm for a Happier Pet

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Introduction

As a dog behaviour expert, I’m here to guide you through this critical aspect of canine psychology, explaining what trigger stacking is, its impact on dogs, and how you can effectively manage it to ensure your dog leads a happier, more balanced life.

What is Trigger Stacking?

Trigger stacking is where a dog’s stress response is activated several times in a short period and withdraws on their resilience making them more likely to react. We think of trigger stacking like a back account with an overdraft. If a dog reacts frequently without having enough positive experiences to recover and build their balance back up, they are getting deeper and deeper into their emotional overdraft which makes them feel generally worse and is more difficult for them to recover from. Dogs that are trigger stacked are more likely to react disproportionately to stressors and using coping mechanisms such as fight, flight, fool around or freeze.

In a human world, it could be that you wake up late, spill coffee on your white shirt or blouse then discover you must de-ice the car before you can leave. If after this you then get stuck in traffic, your emotional resilience has taken so many hits that it’s difficult for you to then start your working day with a positive outlook. If this happens for more than one day, or more things happen, you will quickly start to have a negative outlook on the week generally and this can increase further with further stressors.

When a dog is consistently trigger stacking, they struggle more to build a positive emotional state because their resilience is so depleted and in need of recovery before that can happen. Dogs that have suffered many stressors in a short space of time need environmental management to ensure that their exposure to triggers is heavily reduced so that recovery can begin. Some of these dogs’ struggle to settle or sleep initially as they are ‘wired’ and many people believe that taking them out for more walks will help them settle. Often this is not the case, and commonly can add to more trigger stacking. Stressed dogs need to find nourishing activities they can engage in, such as those suggested in my calming activities guide. Some dogs have access to walks that are quiet and enable them to sniff without pressure, which can be beneficial if getting to those walks don’t cause them further stress. For those dogs that cannot access a walk without encountering stressors, it is sometimes necessary to give them indoor entertainment to do instead to help them feel safe and recover.

Identifying Common Triggers in Dogs

It is important to be aware that a trigger can be anything the individual dog perceives as scary or frustrating and this will depend a lot on them as an individual, their genetics and their previous learning. Some dogs aren’t triggered by fireworks whereas others can be frightened by the noise of the washing machine. When a dog is reacting strongly to a trigger such as going into fight or flight mode, they are also going to be activating a response in their brain that makes them remember an event more strongly. The human comparisons above can certainly cause frustration, but some reactive dogs will have strong fear reactions regularly throughout the day because their perception of danger is so strong. Those dogs that fear other dogs and/or people for example could be comparable to how we may feel if we walked down a street and felt threatened by all the people that passed us. It’s likely we would need some significant recovery time and nourishing activities to help after this. It is also likely that we would be reluctant or guarded about walking down that street again, and perhaps next time ready to respond to danger.

  • Environmental Changes: Anything from loud noises, such as thunderstorms or fireworks, to unfamiliar settings can act as triggers.
  • Social Interactions: Encounters with other animals or people, especially if they’re unfamiliar or perceived as threatening.
  • Routine Disruptions: Changes in daily routines or separation from family members can create anxiety.
  • Physical Discomfort: Illness, injury, or even minor discomforts like hunger or fatigue.

The Impact of Trigger Stacking

When these triggers accumulate, they can lead to behavioural changes. Signs to watch out for include:

  • Increased aggression or fearfulness
  • Destructive behaviours
  • Withdrawal or avoidance
  • Excessive barking or whining
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Possible health issues including common gut issues

Understanding that these behaviours are often a result of trigger stacking is crucial in addressing the root cause rather than just the symptoms.

Managing Trigger Stacking

  1. Identify and Minimise Triggers: Keep a log of incidents that cause your dog stress. Understanding what affects your dog allows you to avoid or minimise these triggers.
  2. Create a Safe Space: Ensure your dog has a comfortable, quiet place where they can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed.
  3. Implement a Routine: Consistency in daily activities provides a sense of security and reduces anxiety.
  4. Professional Help: If your dog’s reactions are severe, consider seeking the assistance of a professional dog behaviourist to implement a plan where you are working with changing the emotions behind the triggers so they don’t cause a stress response.

Conclusion

Understanding and managing trigger stacking is crucial for the well-being of your pet. By recognising the signs and taking proactive steps, you can help your dog lead a more balanced and stress-free life. Remember, every dog is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Patience and persistence are key.

Remember: If you’re concerned about your dog’s behaviour, always consult a professional for tailored advice.

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