“He Never Does That!”

Trigger Stacking (Photo: Brad Waggoner)

Photo: Brad Waggoner

There are numerous articles available on the internet about trigger stacking. I have even written one of them on a different venue. These are wonderful articles with valid information. But there are some important pieces of the puzzle missing from these articles. Happy stress is not mentioned and neither is simple sensory overload.

Not everything that adds to any given reaction in a situation is a trigger. A trigger, in dog behavior language, is an addition to the environment that causes a dog to increase their awareness/fear/reactivity. Anything that constitutes a stressful trigger certainly adds another layer of stress to what a dog is experiencing.

However, stressful triggers alone are not responsible for creating a shorter fuse in a dog. There are a number of things that can add to trigger stacking. Dogs really like routines. They thrive with structure and known expectations. Any additions and changes to a routine can add a layer of stress that creates a reaction that is not typical of the dog in question.

What does this mean in the overall scheme of things? This means that the simple act of not getting a daily walk when this is an expectation can add stress. A much loved visitor well known to the dog can add stress via excitement. Interacting at length with people the dog is not typically exposed to, regardless of the dog’s comfort level with friendly strangers, can add stress. A lengthy car trip to a favored location can add stress. A day out at a favorite activity can add stress. The stressor doesn’t have to be an adverse activity to create a reaction.

Think about how humans handle activities that are not part of their normal routine. A day at an amusement park that is fun and enjoyable but exhausting can shorten the fuse on anyone, especially anyone young enough to have under-developed impulse control. Parents with overtired and overactive children completely understand how layers of happy activity add to stress reactions. Imagine a small child after a very happy birthday party. Cranky and tired children get a nap to refresh themselves and calm their energy. Yet we expect typically laid back dogs to be the same day in and day out regardless of what transpires in any given day.

Priorities changes for humans at various times throughout any given day. What is most important to you when you wake up is likely not most important to you at noon and what is important at noon, is again different then say after dinner. Sentient beings don’t exist in a vacuum. Behavior is fluid and changes with the situation. We all have many facets to our personalities and the same is true of dogs. Expecting them to be robots is contrary to what we want from them when we express our love and affection. And important part of love and affection is respecting our dogs for who they are.

Manage your expectations and see your dog as an individual. This can very much help dog parents to have realistic expectations of those who depend on them for safety and care. Consider the following example situations.

If you have a party for humans and your dog is very fond of visitors, expect that at some point, he will be over the visitors and will want to be able to seek a quieter part of the household. Help him do so with something yummy to do. After all, at some point, you will also be over the visitors as well and may want nothing more than to relax with a bath after they leave. So don’t fault your dog for possibly being inclined to be more transparent about his thoughts. Set him up for success and stress relief.

Or perhaps your dog has had a long day at an agility trial and is looking forward to a relaxing nap in the car on the way home. Yet you are dawdling while chatting with your friends you only see at events. Do you expect your dog to sit idly by your side or to continue to engage with the remaining crowd while you chatter? Or do you see his weariness and allow him an out? And out being, placing him in the car (weather appropriate!) and allowing him to relax.

Ponder whatever circumstance that may arise in your dog’s life that could fit this bill. I most often hear that phrase “He never does that!” after a full day of something fun or even mostly routine, with something new thrown into the mix. Feel free to anthropomorphize here. This word is something I am not in agreement with anyway as humans don’t own emotions. Your dog possess them as well so allow them the same courtesies that you would allow yourself.

Learn to allow your dog an out after any out of a normal daily routine activity. Dogs have normal ebbs and flows in their personalities, just like humans. Life is fluid and changing. Make it a goal to communicate effectively with your dog. Being understood is the kindest thing you can do for anyone. They will thank you for it. And you will avoid having to say “He never does that!”


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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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