Please click on the tabs to go to a subject

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Trigger Stacking

Have you ever had one of those days when nothing goes right.  You wake up late, then get stuck in traffic, then spill coffee on yourself, then the boss yell's at you.  You finally make it home. One of the kids accidentally spills something and you yell at her like she just wrecked your car or something.  Normally you wouldn't react so strongly, but with all the other things piled on to your day, you just snapped.

The same thing can happen to our dogs.  Trigger stacking can be especially hard on quiet dogs (the ones who don't bark much to tell us they are upset). Let's say your dog is afraid of children, men in hats, women in shades and thunderstorms.    Since your dog doesn't protest much, she might pass by several children and show no outward signs of reactivity.  Or she might accept pets from women in shades even though she is uncomfortable.  And he might deal with a thunderstorm in silence even though the noises are scary.
But then one day out of the blue, the mild mannered dog snaps at a child.

There are many reasons why this might have happened. One possibility is trigger stacking. Maybe it wasn't just the kid.  Earlier in the week, the dog might have had a scary vet visit. Then a couple of days later, there might have been a thunderstorm, earlier that day, the dog might have been forced to endure socializing with a man wearing a hat. So the dog is already walking around on edge and all of a sudden a kids appears around the corner and tries to hug the dog.

A well-publicized example of trigger staking is the Mastiff who bit a news anchor in the face. The anchor needed 70 stitches and reconstructive surgery.  The day before, the dog had been pulled from icy water.  He should have been resting and de-stressing from his traumatic event. Instead he was sent to a scary newsroom. Then the Dad held the dog tightly by the collar (which is stressful), then the news anchor kept petting the dog even though the dog was giving off a lot of calming signals indicating that he did not want to be petted. Then the anchor got right in the dog's face (a no-no) and the dog bit her. This might have been a dog who normally doesn't bite. But there were just too many stressful things happening to this dog. Read more on this story here

How can we avoid trigger stacking in our pets? We can't protect our dogs from all scary things (like thunderstorms and vet visits) but the more we reduce those things we can control, the less stressed our pets will be. For my own pets - after a vet visit, we do nothing else for the rest of the day. To reduce the chances of something else stressful happening that day.

Other things we can do

-Although we can't always avoid intrusive strangers, when we can avoid, we should.  For the few times we run into that one person we can't get away from, it might not be so bad on our pets.  But if they are forced to endure people often, you never know when just one more person might cause your pet to snap or bite.

- If our dog doesn't like other dogs, we should never force him/her to meet other dogs.  Yes there will be times when off leash dogs will come up. But they will be easier to handle if we haven't been forcing our dog to meet other dogs.

- Maintain a calm household
   soft classical music
   headsets when watching TV (especially action movies or scary movies)
   no yelling across rooms
   reduce banging of pot and pan

- Training classes
   -- if the classes are scary or stressful, we shouldn't go

Of course we want to start helping our pets feel better about their triggers.  But we should work on just one trigger at a time. And we should try to start at a place where our dog isn't concerned, but aware; then slowly work on the issue - increasing the intensity in teeny tiny bits.

Example. If our dog is afraid of kids, we stay far away enough from kids so that our dog is still calm but close enough that our dog can see and/or hear the kids. Then we give treats and/or play some "Control Unleashed" games (Leslie McDevitt) .

Information on classical conditioning:

Email general questions or comments to
Replies might be shared on this blog but names will be changed or left out.

To get notified of future posts, click here


  1. Great post! I think we tend to feel a dog can just bounce right back from a stressful event and we don't give them the proper time to de-stress. Thanks for the tips. Jenn

    1. Yep. Some dog are stuck between a "rock and a hard place"

      If they protest by barking or growling, they get "punished"

      If they stay quiet, we just keep piling on the stress. :(