15 Jan

We’ve all had bad days. Days when nothing seems to go your way. You sleep through your alarm, spill your coffee, a stranger steals your parking space, the printer at work keeps jamming. We all know what it feels like to carry stress that has accumulate over a day. Now imaging that you’ve made it back home, and your pan of pasta boils over. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You’re absolutely seething. You might shout, cry, slam doors, or just simply give up and go to bed. To anyone else, it seems like a disproportionate reaction. This, my friends, is called ‘Trigger Stacking’, and our dogs experience it too.

The only difference is that our dog’s triggers are unlikely to be the same as ours. If the batteries in my toothbrush die, then I can’t find the shoes I want, then I receive a tersely worded email, my morning is ruined. If Sam, my Retriever, isn’t given his breakfast at the usual time, is taken for a routine check-up at the vet, then a lorry drives closely past us out on a walk, his morning is ruined. All of these triggers are experienced either simultaneously or in quick succession, thus building tension in our dogs. Once our dogs experience too many of these triggers, they pass their psychological and emotional threshold.

Remember our reaction to spilled pasta water? It seemed silly to everyone else who wasn’t as stressed as us or whose triggers are different to ours. A dog which has been surprised by a cyclist, barked at by other dogs, patted by a stranger, all during one walk might be teetering at its emotional threshold. All it takes is for a driver to honk his horn and we see what looks like an overreaction from our dog.

If you find that your dog is ‘overreacting’ or shutting down when exposed to new things, slow to recover from exciting events, constantly desperate to get to or away from things out on walks, then your dog may be being exposed to too many triggers, and his threshold is being crossed.

Some dogs have a naturally low trigger threshold, and different dogs are stressed by different things- just like humans. However, there are things you can do to help.

  • Never punish your dog for displaying these behaviours. They can’t help it! Instead, reward them for calm behaviour.
  • Learn your dog’s triggers and pre-empt them out on walks. Try not to keep exposing them to their triggers. Forcing them to ‘deal with’ scary situations or saying that ‘they’re going to have to learn’ doesn’t work.
  • Think about what you like doing to relieve the tension of the day. Yoga? Cooking? Netflix binge? Then think about what your dog likes doing. Activities might include sniffing, foraging, playing, digging, followed by lots of rest.

If in doubt, consult a qualified, force-free trainer.

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