Trigger Stacking - Do you care how your dog feels inside?
How's does your dog feel inside? Do you care as long as it does what you want? Should you care?
Well the answer is you should care, because one day they may suddenly do something worrying and unexpected and you don't know why. It will be related to how they feel inside and the fact they can't tell you. Maybe they were trying to tell you all along, but you didn't have the information to read the signs.
The fact is most dogs endure a lot. They are told when they can eat, when they can walk, they are left alone bored and might not understand why, they walk attached to a piece of rope attached to a human, they might get pulled, they walk past huge lorries and buses, buzzing motor bikes, have to greet other dogs with a tight lead on a narrow pavement, they get touched by all sorts of humans, patted, prodded without an escape route, they have to jump in and out of a car from a standing jump without warming up and without steps or a ramp (could you do this multiple times per day without injuring yourself?), they have all manner of natural urges to work, chase, hunt, chew, guard, herd, hold, retrieve, socialise and scavenge that they have to suppress for long periods of their days which causes frustration, they have to deal with fears without being able to talk about it or an escape route. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. By the way, the two major causes of aggression in dogs are fear and frustration.
Have you ever woken up and the alarm didn't go off, you are late for work, you're sore from the chiropractor the day before, you spill coffee on your clothes at breakfast, you get stuck in traffic on the way to work, your boss breaths fire at you, you get stuck in traffic on the way home. Finally you get home and your partner asks you why you didn't do the washing up. Boom. You explode.
This my friends is trigger stacking. An accumulation of stress over time that results in the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Trigger stacking is real for humans and it is real for dogs and it can take days to come down from.
Sadly where as in humans the explosion is usually an argument, with dogs it could be a growl or a bite. When this happens without the awareness of trigger stacking we say "oh the dog has become aggressive and unpredictable, maybe we should put the dog to sleep". Actually it was very predictable with the right information. Dog's don't do things without reason, there is always a reason.
So I will ask you again do you care how your dog feels inside? Caring about this avoids long term behavioural problems somewhere down the line. Just because your dog is tolerating now, it doesn't mean it will tolerate forever.
Ok so what if you do care how your dog feels inside? What can you do?
There are some simple things you can do. Learn a little more about canine body language so you can identify low level whispers from your dogs and adjust accordingly. You don't need to wait for a growl or bite. There are wonderful resources out there such as the ladder of aggression and calming signals. For example, a dog that is looking away from you could be worried. We have all seen the dog videos on the internet of dogs looking away from the camera. This is usually because there is a camera and a human in the dogs face. Not because the dog is hilariously guilty about eating a cushion. There are a number of these low level behaviours. Other includes yawning, licking lips, low tail, tail tucked under, heavy salivation, head low, body low, taking itself away, lifting a paw slightly off the ground, rolling over in submission and even going to sleep somewhere quiet. The dog will not choose all of them. I have seen a dog go from looking away to biting. So you need to know what your dog does and know them all in general. Learn what you're dog likes and doesn't like. What is scary or uncomfortable to one dog may not be to another dog. What is not scary to you, may well be scary to your dog. Keep your distance from scary things and allow your dog time and space to appraise and choose what to do. Do not force them or pull them to it.
Be strategical with what you're dog experiences. For example, if you're dog saw the vet yesterday and it was stressful, have a stress free next day. Maybe a short walk and some games at home. Dogs often find walks very arousing and a rest day from walking is also good for a dog from time to time. Another example, if you have just been on a 5 hour drive to your holiday cottage, have an early night and start afresh in the morning. Don't go to a family BBQ with 20 friends and 5 other dogs. Chances are your dog is stressed from the drive and needs a rest. A long drive to a new location is highly stressful for dogs. As someone who does behaviour consultations, I can tell you this, a long drive to a busy holiday is prime time for growling and biting. Why? Trigger stacking. One more example, if it's a blazing summers day and your dog has taken itself away under a tree or chair, is it the best time for your 7 year old niece to be following the dog around and asking it to play? Simply put, no it isn't
Provide enrichment. This means low adrenaline brain games, sniffer games, problem solving and scavenging games. These can all be done at home. It is not all about walking the dog. Activities of this kind improve confidence, relieve boredom and satisfy natural urges. Just walking a dog or throwing a ball over and over may not be varied enough.
Older training methods insisted the dog has to put up with anything we demand of it. Science has proved otherwise and we live in a world where we are much more of aware of animals stress levels and have more tools and information at our disposal. Dogs have cortisol and adrenaline inside them just like humans do. Exposure to this for extended periods causes mental trauma and maladaptive behaviour patterns that humans then see as problem behaviours. For more info please see my other blogs or call me for a chat.