Today I woke up with a weird funk hanging over my head. Everything I did, however ordinary, seemed to be met with resistance.
When my shoe lace came untied, I felt frustration, gritting my teeth to re-tie it. Spilling my coffee made me rest my head in my hands for a minute before I was able to cleanup the mess.
By the afternoon, the sound of my kids arguing made me want to pull my hair out, and when I got home from work to discover I had forgotten to turn on dinner in the crock pot, I burst into tears.
The last drop makes the cup run over.
I don't normally cry when I forget part of dinner prep. Usually I can shake my head and figure out how to solve the problem. But today, after dealing with stressor upon stressor, my fuse continued to recede until I was simply done.
When we talk about this cumulation of stress in our dogs, we often refer to it as trigger stacking. A trigger might be anything that causes your dog to feel stress. The cat walking too close during meal time. Meeting several people when out on the morning walk, when your dog isn't a fan of strangers. The smoke detector telling you it's batteries are dying by incessantly beeping.
A dog that is dealing with trigger stacking, or cumulative stress, is on who might react intensely to a stimulus that they'd normally be able to handle (the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back.) This dog may be suddenly reactive, react more intensely, and react more frequently than is their normal.
When our body is stressed, our brain releases stress hormones, the same ones that trigger our "fight or flight" response. When our dog experiences numerous triggers in a day, these triggers start to stack on top of one another, and their stress hormone levels climb higher and higher until the dog just can't take it anymore - kaboom!
Stress is a normal and natural occurrence that we experience to some degree everyday. The purpose of stress is to help prime your body to deal with a potential threat or danger, however, if we experience stress frequently, our body does not have a chance to return to it's normal state. When your body's stress center is constantly firing, keeping your fight or flight response switched on, we call this chronic stress. Individuals living in a state of persistent stress are prone to negative health implications, both mentally and physically.
To help prevent trigger stacking in our dog, we first need to determine what their triggers are, or what causes them stress.
Since our dog cannot tell us this, we need to finesse our observational skills and learn how to read and understand their body language.
Then, with your heightened understanding, start to watch your dog in a variety of everyday situations and make note of what you see in his body. What could these signals be communicating to you?
Once we understand what causes our dog stress, we can start to be aware of the various stressors they have experienced that day, and appreciate how these might influence their behavior.
Did your dog encounter several dogs on his morning walk?
Did he spend the majority of the day barking at things out the front window?
Does the young puppy pester your older dog relentlessly?
Should you then be surprised if your dog explodes when a dog starts barking from the backyard?
Our next task is to acknowledge that our dog has been stressed (or is stressed) and work to manage their environment to reduce additional stressors, while letting their body normalize. This might mean blocking access to that front window, or skipping that afternoon walk to avoid potential dogs on it. This is where our detox walks come in super handy.
If your dog had a stressful encounter that morning, how can you adjust their day to avoid further accumulation? What types of activities can you provide your dog to help them relieve their stress?
In addition to detox walks, I would recommend chewing, sniffing activities, regular sleep, and short, fun training sessions.
My job as my dog's owner is to advocate for him, to set him up to be successful, and to be understanding of the speed bumps he encounters.
Just because our dog's can't easily share their worries with us, does not mean they have nothing to say.
The more we understand what our dog is communicating to us, and the more aware we are of their stressors, the better we can help them to prosper.
"It's not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it."
Vanessa Charbonneau, is the author of Dog Care for Puppies: A guide to Feeding, Playing, Grooming and Behavior. She owns Sit Pretty Pet Services, employing force-free training techniques to work with companion dogs and their owners. Charbonneau lives in Prince George, BC with her husband, two daughters, and one dog.