Many dog owners have never heard of the term “Trigger Stacking”. Everybody knows that dogs may bite when pushed too far, but do you understand why? Understanding the issues of trigger stacking can help you prevent the worst from happening.
Trigger stacking is kind of like overeating. You stuff yourself (stressors/triggers) without giving your stomach time to digest (passage of time), which makes you feel as though you are about to explode (reactivity threshold).
And such are the components of trigger stacking: (1) Stressors/Triggers, (2) The passage of time, (3) The reactivity threshold.
At this point, I would like to mention that trigger stacking is an involuntary occurrence, as a stressful event will put the body on auto-pilot to protect itself from perceived threat. This happens under the control of the Sympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (SANES), which is responsible for controlling the flight/fight response.
Stressors are events or conditions in a dog’s surroundings that may trigger stress.
When a trigger occurs, the body releases stress hormones to help the dog deal with the event. Cortisol (aka the fight-flight hormone) is one of these hormones. Cortisol levels increase each time a stress event occurs, and it can take 5 to 10 hours for a body to recover from the increased cortisol level. If the timeframe between trigger events doesn’t allow for cortisol levels to clear completely, new cortisol will be added (stacked up) to the remaining levels from previous events, driving the dog towards and, at some point, over his reactivity threshold, possibly repeatedly and in short successions.
So, what does that look like in the real world? First off, every dog has a certain (individual) reactivity threshold, and a trigger event is not what we perceive to be a threat, but what the dog sees as a threat. As long as trigger events occur individually, separated by enough time to allow increased cortisol to return to normal levels, most dogs can tolerate them and stay under threshold. For example, let’s say a dog gets anxious over meeting a stranger. A few days later, he meets a strange dog. And another few days later, the dog meets a strange child that pets him on the head. Each event causes stress, but thanks to the passage of time between the events, the dog’s stress hormones were able to decrease to a normal level every time, and the dog was able to deal with each stressor individually. Trigger stacking was avoided.
Now let’s shorten the passage of time between these (trigger) events. Anxious dog meets stranger, 10 minutes later a strange dog comes running up, and two hours later a strange child runs up to embrace the dog in a hug. Three stress events, each causing a separate surge of cortisol (aka fight-flight hormone) with no time for the hormones to recede to normal levels in-between. Instead, the hormones are stacking up and driving your dog closer and closer, possibly even over his reactivity threshold (this threshold is different for each dog). If free to do so, your dog may, at this point, decide to run from that child. But what if your dog is physically restrained, let’s say by a leash? The only two options left are to “freeze” (if he is still below threshold) and hope that the threat goes away quickly, or to bite (“fight” for his life, if he was actually pushed over his threshold).
One more time:
Trigger stacking is an involuntary occurrence!
But all is not lost. There are things you can do to prevent trigger stacking from happening.
Know your dog: Hopefully, you know your dog better than anybody else. You know what he likes and dislikes. You know what stresses him, and what doesn’t.
Avoid stressful moments: Even though, quick and short-lived stress can be a good thing, try to avoid stress whenever possible. And if it is not possible, make sure your dog has time to recover from a stress event before your dog is subjected to new stress.
Listen to your dog: Your dog will always tell you how he feels – LISTEN. The language dogs use is not just restricted to whining and barking. Dogs have their own dictionary that is loaded with body language, including “calming signals” (I will write about calming signals in my next post).
Don’t make matters worse: Don’t add stress to an already stressful situation by correcting your dog’s natural behavior. It won’t work. It will escalate the situation and drive your dog towards the threshold even quicker. Furthermore, there is no quicker way to lose your dog’s trust than to “get on his case”, especially when he needs you the most.
Give your dog time: Allow that cortisol to recede to normal levels.
Be patient and understanding: Stress and anxiety are tough ones to deal with. Always keep in mind that dogs don’t want to bite. To bite is a last resort after many attempts to tell you he is uncomfortable. Dogs that bite without a warning have been ignored one too many times and learned that “small talk” does not work for him. Don’t let it get to that point. Protect your dog and the people he meets from the worst case scenario, as it has the potential to cause a lot of harm to people and cost your dog’s life.
Don’t forget to love your dog!
(For a more visual approach to Trigger Stacking, follow this link to a video by Donna Hill)