Trigger stacking in reactive dogs is a very common term when talking about reactivity issues. It can affect the most calm of dogs and turn them into a barking and lunging mess if we don’t recognise the signs our dogs are subtly giving us. If not managed correctly, trigger stacking in reactive dogs can lead to a reaction over the smallest of things or in the worst case scenario a bite. Continue reading and find out more about how trigger stacking and long term stress can be an issue for your dog.

trigger stacking in reactive dogs

Trigger Stacking in Reactive Dogs

Trigger stacking is the accumulation of stress in the body, whether it be dog, animal or human. Think of stress and trigger stacking like a volcano, on one hand some volcanos can disperse of the build up of gasses before it becomes a problem. Other volcanos struggle to get rid of the pressure and build-up of gasses that they accumulate and instead can’t cope but to explode, violently most of the time, expelling lava, rock and loud noises!

Many things can be considered as triggers to dogs, from other dogs to skateboards, to screaming kids and men in hats etc. A trigger is anything that causes stress and fear within your dog.

With leash reactivity in dogs, when encountering a trigger your dog doesn’t like, they have 3 options when on leash; fight, flight and accept. Most dogs want to run away at this point but we put them in situations where they end up having to try to fight or just accept the situation and the fact they can’t escape (can be very dangerous).

How trigger stacking works

Various things out in the environment can be considered a trigger for your dog. Imagine a scale from 1-10, 1 being the calmest side of behaviour and 10 being erratic and uncontrollable, with that in mind, here’s an example of trigger stacking in reactive dogs…

  • Your dog starts off calmly at 1 in the morning, you play around in the house before heading out the door for you morning walk
  • As you leave the house a cyclist whizzes past you ringing the bell which startles your dog – they go from a 1 to a 3 on the scale.
  • On your walk you there is a dog on the other side of the street, you manage to keep the attention of your dog but they are now a 5 on the scale.
  • Returning from the walk a group of small children run past screaming and shouting which puts your dog up to a a 7 on the scale.
  • You return home where they get the chance to relax down to a 5 on the scale.
  • The next day you go out and your dog is at a 5 on the scale and because of this they pull on the leash and  are a bit more alert of their surroundings, looking for an invisible threat. They are now closer to threshold and could have a bad reaction even to something they never would before.

Even going on a short walk with an unaware owner can leave a dog a lot more stressed out when they return from a walk, compared to when they left a walk in the first place.

A short video to visually explain the concept

Stress In Dogs

Stress in short bursts is good for dogs, it is used for survival and it also helps towards learning (to a minimal degree). In longer periods, stress and fear can be detrimental to a dogs health and mental wellbeing.

Cortisol, along with other hormones including adrenaline, are released in situations of high arousal. This is a survival instinct where the dog is preparing for fight or flight (run away), a series of changes occur in the body such as heightened senses, increased blood pressure and sugar, increased blood flow, and more.

It can take up to 72 hours for a dogs body to eliminate stress! That’s 3 days to get back to a calm base level, could you imagine being incredibly stressed for this amount of time?! You’d be a mess right?!

Reactivity and Prolonged Stress in Dogs

Have you ever wondered why one day you may have a good walk but the next your dog seems agitated and seems to be on alert? A dog that goes up and down the scale like a yo-yo will give inconsistent walks every time. If not properly addressed you can experience a number of issues when taking a stressed dog for a walk or walking an already stressed dog which can include:

  • Hypervigilance

This is a heightened state of mind, the body goes into high alert and is anticipating danger. You may notice your dog repeatedly scanning the environment, pulling ahead as if on guard, sniffing, staring into the distance or at people and maybe even stopping. The body is in fight or flight mode here, expecting an unseen danger, which for reactive dogs can be problematic.

  • Ignore you and won’t listen

I used to think Jasper ignored me when we were out and he was in a stressed state however I realised that in this state he was taking in all the environment, assessing whether anything approaching was a threat, trying to make sense of everything important and ignore what didn’t matter. If I can’t get his focus and engagement in this state then there is no way I’m going to even get him to sit.

  • Inability to learn

The higher up the scale a dog goes, the harder it is for a dog to learn. With cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones flowing through the body (plus the increased focus on the trigger), a dog is less likely to listen to commands especially if it goes over threshold.

  • Quicker to react

Dogs that are already stressed are quicker to react, those that are already expecting an issue won’t take the time to stop and think when one arises. Dogs that are more stressed are also more likely to react to things they may normally not react to, due to the underlying stress.

How To Prevent Trigger Stacking in Reactive Dogs

It’s easy to be unaware of trigger stacking in reactive dogs or dogs in general, until it is too late. Below are 5 different things you can do to prevent trigger stacking in reactive dogs…

  1. Know what triggers your dog
    The first thing I recommend to do is to find out exactly what triggers your dog, you want to be as specific as possible. For example, if your dog is reactive to other dogs does it matter the size, gender or the colour?  If your dog is reactive to people is it gender, skin colour or things like hats? If you can identify everything that triggers your dog then when you are out you know exactly what to avoid. Write these down for further reference!
  2. Improve leash skills
    One way to avoid trigger stacking is to be able to get out of sticky situations before your dog has the chance to react. By developing solid leash skills and maneuvers, you can work with your dog to move to a safer location.
  3. Practice engagement skills
    Engagement skills such as teaching your dog to focus or teaching them targeting can be great for when you have to pass triggers. Having strong engagement skills will help reduce leash reactivity and make these experiences less stressful for the dog.
  4. Understand your dogs body language
    Dogs speak a lot through body language, whether it is to other dogs or to their humans, a lot is communicated through body language including leash reactive warning signs. Many people don’t realise that our dogs give us signals as we take them for a walk, we notice them pulling on the leash or stopping to sniff but we don’t notice the change of the ear position or tail position or how tense the body has just become.
  5. Take your time!
    The final thing is to take your time! You want this process to be as stress free as possible for you and your dog, you don’t want to drag them into situations that neither of you are prepared for, it’ll be detrimental for progress and your dog will doubt your leadership skills

helping a reactive dog find calm
Discover the importance of teaching focus and engagement on walks

Reducing Stress in Your Dog

As I’ve said before, prolonged stress can create big problems for reactive dogs if not managed or controlled properly. As the guardian for our dogs, it is up to us to keep an eye out for stressful experiences and work on reducing them. Below are 5 methods you should consider to destress your reactive dog.

  1. Reduce/Eliminate Stress
    Now that you know what triggers your dog, you want to avoid experiences that will have a chance of exposing your dog to stress. Options for this include going a different route for your walks or going somewhere a bit more quiet if you have the option to drive somewhere, even cutting out dog parks can be ideal if your dog is currently having issues with reactivity.
  2. Physical Contact
    Physical contact can be very calming for dogs.  Meaningful touching such as massaging and TTouch are great examples of using physical contact to calm dogs. Making time during the day to massage and destress your dog can be very beneficial for overall behaviour. When on walks, after a stressful situation, putting your dog in a tuck or safe zone while you calm them can help soothe them.
  3. Enrichment
    By allowing a dog to use their natural skills you can help enrichment and making them feel more calm. Sniffing for example can be very calming for a dog, hiding treats around the house, the garden or even in the grass off the path and asking your dog to find them can help them reduce stress. For example, the ability to use the nose for finding treats, toys and even keys can be very rewarding and highly satisfying for dogs, it can also provide a lot of mental stimulation. You can wrap treats in a towel or you can be more creative and put said towel in cardboard box and let your dog work out the best way to get to those treats. Get creative, stuff a cardboard box with paper and more pieces of card and add a few treats to find.
  4. Calm Walks
    You want to make walks as calm as possible. This means you want to avoid any triggers that may approach and you don’t want to arouse your dog with running or playing fetch. Take this time to enjoy walking with your dog and build confidence with a bit of obedience or getting them to put paws up on a log. Keep stress levels down on these walks to help bring your dog back to a calm base level.

    (Find my 4 top tips for calm dog walking here)
  5. Taking time off
    Sometimes the best thing to do is take some time off. If it takes 3 days for the body to eliminate stress, don’t walk your dog for 3 days. By avoiding any stimulation from the external environment your dog will easily be able to destress and restart. This rehabilitation period is used for exercising your dog mentally, building confidence and relationship and also for strengthening skills for when you get back outside.

exercise a reactive dog
Other ways you can exercise your dog that doesn’t involve just going for walks.

Be Patient, Be Better!

You must be patient with your dog especially when stress is the issue, an uncontrollable outburst from you will just show you can be unpredictable and add unneeded stress to the situation. Keep an eye out for trigger stacking in reactive dogs, learn the body language of both a relaxed and stressed dog, keep an eye out for bad situations and avoid where necessary, if you ignore the signs your dog is giving you then they will take matter into their own hands (or paws).

Understanding more about your dog and reactivity in general can fast track you and your dog to success! Check out the rest of my blog, starting from the beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs which is a great starting point for those looking to understand more about managing this issue.

I found a lot of useful and more in-depth information on trigger stacking reactive dogs here – How we Set Our Dogs To Fail