Trainer’s Corner: Trigger Stacking

Lisa Destnik with So Much PETential is CincyPet's Fear Free® Certified Training Expert

Have you ever had one of those days or weeks when one thing after another seemed to go wrong? Maybe your alarm clock didn’t go off. Then you spilled coffee on your shirt which made you late for your morning meeting with your boss. Your boss was not happy with one of your projects. You were feeling stressed much of the day. Then, as you were leaving for the day, you punch the down button for the elevator and it is taking a lot longer than usual. Usually, you are known for being pretty level-headed but at that moment, you began yelling at the elevator. It seemed so out-of-the-blue. 

Only it really was not. 

The culprit is something known as trigger stacking. It occurs when numerous stress events happen either simultaneously or within a relatively short period of time, and collectively decrease an animal’s coping tolerance. Thus lowering that animal’s reactivity threshold (making it more likely for that animal to reactive negatively to what is going on in the environment). 

Trigger Stacking For Dogs 

A stressful situation (and that can be good or bad stress) affects a dog physically. Among its impact is a rise in cortisol levels, the stress hormone that is associated with a dog’s ‘flight or fight’ biological instinct. It can take hours and even days for those hormones to return to normal. Until then, that dog has much greater sensitivity.  

What constitutes a stressful event is different for every single dog, person, or another animal. And genetics can also play a role in this. 

The list of what can be included is long. Among the possible underlying triggers are pain or illness, lack of sleep or rest, a vet or groomer appointment, loud noises, a thunderstorm, exposure to large crowds, separation, children yelling or moving fast, the presence of unfamiliar dogs, loud cars, frustration, a lack of control. 

While anyone of those may be tolerable for that dog (or another animal), the cumulative effect of multiple triggers can be problematic. A few weeks back I was walking my dog along a path when a large dog (on a leash) came into our path from an angle that took us by surprise. My dog began barking in a high-pitched tone, charging at the end of the leash. I moved away quickly, however, he was still in that heightened state when we happened to also cross paths with a mother and her two young children. At any other time, Dawson would have wagged his tail and greeted them with loose muscles. However, at that moment he responded just as he did when the dog surprised us. I quickly moved us out of the way and walked back to my car to call it a day. That was an example of trigger stacking. 

Another time a client was telling me about an incident that baffled her. Her sheepdog usually greets people with a soft body, soliciting rubs and attention from those around him. However, on that day he growled and snapped at a child. She didn’t understand. Through my questioning, I learned this happened at a multi-family gathering. Kids were running around screaming. There was a lot of unusual noise and commotion at that time. When we talked about dog body language, she said she did see some of those stress communication signals in her dog before the incident happened. Because of all that additional stress, her dog’s ability to tolerate things was greatly diminished. 

How to help your dog

If you notice a sudden behavior change in your dog or your dog seems to have a much more difficult time recovering from a stress event, or there is just so much about your dog’s world that is stressful, I encourage you to have a thorough medical exam including bloodwork to rule out a medical cause. It may also be helpful to seek assistance from a trainer who uses the most positive strategies. 

Get to know your dog’s body language. It is important that you learn how to recognize your dog’s subtle ways of communicating stress. A few examples to watch for include yawning, stiffness in body muscles, lowered and tucked tail, avoidance behaviors, lip licks, or growling. And practice giving your dog what he needs at that time to feel safe and recover, whether that is the distance from the trigger, quiet time away from stress, or comfort from you.

Get to know what stresses your dog. Note that triggers do not necessarily need to be events that cause anxiety. Rambunctious play or a houseful of guests to socialize with can cause a different kind of stress, but still stress. And do not only look for the obvious. Remember, things like a change of routine, hunger, or lack of sleep can also be triggers. 

Practice good management. If your dog did experience stress, give him quiet time to recover. If you are having a party and you know that your dog gets nervous around strangers, plan ahead where a better place may be for your dog. It could be that your dog may be happier staying with a friend during that time. Avoid bringing your dog to large crowd events if that is not a happy place for your dog. Practice teaching your dog positive associations with those activities that have caused negative associations in the past like car rides, vet and groomer appointments. 

Now, think about your dog. There are a number of things that he finds stressful in any given day – even if some of those events are things that he usually tolerates or enjoys (maybe you don’t mind talking to that annoying coworker on good days; maybe your dog doesn’t mind meeting kids on good days). 

Every dog is different, and what a dog finds stressful is up to him—even if it’s something that we don’t think is stressful or scary. Some of those things may include the following:

  • loud noises (like thunder, fireworks, a car backfiring, etc.)
  • interacting with kids
  • strangers coming to the door
  • being cornered
  • having his ears cleaned or nails clipped
  • having a toy taken away
  • being barked at by another dog
  • a new pet at home
  • visitors staying at the house
  • riding in the car
  • going to a new place (or somewhere with negative associations, like the vet)
  • a family member going out of town
  • a change to his normal daily routine
  • pain or illness
  • plus a whole slew of other events

Imagine that your dog starts his day with a walk around the neighborhood, and a big truck backfires nearby. When he gets home, the neighbor dogs are barking at him, and then a stranger knocks on the door to deliver a package. You corner him in the kitchen to clean his ears, and all of a sudden, he snaps at you. 

From your perspective, he just snapped at you out of nowhere for something that he usually doesn’t mind, but from his perspective, being cornered for an ear cleaning was the last straw to his already stressful day.



Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com
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