The straw that broke the camel’s back – What is Trigger Stacking?

We’ve all experienced it; that moment when we have had many different things piling on us and then one seemingly tiny, insignificant instant and it all comes pouring out.  I will never forget the first time I understood Trigger Stacking.  It was a few years ago and I was having a very busy time at my former job, covering double shifts and taking on more and more responsibilities.  At the same time my husband had been informed that he was suddenly not going to be able to get off the ship he was working on for 4 months. 

I decided one Sunday afternoon that I was going to go for a hike with my dogs and enjoy the lovely day and relax.  I’d planned my route, packed my daysack and gathered my walking boots to put on when I arrived.  After the 40 minute drive I arrived at my destination and groped about for the walking socks I needed to wear as I had driven in sandals.  Only to come up empty.  I had forgotten to stuff socks into my walking boots.

I lost my cool.

I had a break down in the car; screaming, sobbing and hitting the steering wheel and just completely lost my top. 

Over socks.

My poor dogs were silent in the back of the car, not understanding what had changed my mood so suddenly.  After about 5 minutes I managed to calm myself enough reassure my dogs and rethink my walking plans.  I ended up on a quiet forestry walk, not quite the epic hike I had planned but it allowed me to relax enough to think about what had happened.  I later shared my day and the hilarity of loosing it over socks with some friends and one who is a dog behaviourist told me they called that trigger stacking.

I was instantly intrigued and I think it was one of the things that got me to start looking at changing to a dog training career.  I looked up this new phrase and how it was not only relevant to me but to my own dogs.  It started to make complete sense how Bertie could be perfectly fine with a dog one time and then loose his shit the next time he encountered that same dog.

So what is it?

We all have a limit of how much stress we can handle, dogs included.  Like me a few years ago, various events throughout my life had contributed towards this limit until I couldn’t handle the stress anymore and my body went into reaction mode.  Stress can be a lot of things, not necessarily bad, nor induce a dire reaction such as my steaming fit.  In dogs, reactions to a trigger stacking can range from barking, lunging and biting to a sudden case of the ‘zoomies’.  How the dog reacts will vary depending on the situation but it is always sudden and intense. 

One way to think of it for both humans and dogs is in terms of a cup; some have a pint glass, others a tea cup and some a shot glass.  Each of these  ‘cups’ can hold a different volume of stress.  By continually filling the cup with stressful things, eventually the maximum volume is going to be reached until it spills over the edge.  That moment of spillage is the trigger that sets off these intense reactions.  It doesn’t have to be a significant thing to set the spill-over, but as there have been previously stressful things happening, this one event became the trigger that sets it off.

How do we stop the spill-over? 

When a stressful event is occurring, the body reacts to it by releasing adrenaline and cortisol in a huge rush, gearing the body up to react if necessary.  This is sometimes known as fight or flight. But while the release of these hormones is a sudden thing, it can take up to 72 hours for them to reduce and leave the system.  So having a quick culmination of stressful events, gradually builds up the concentration of these hormones until they hit critical mass.  Going back to our cup analogy, the lack of allowance for cup to empty itself (allowing the hormones to leave our system) will see it keep filling up until spillage occurs.

Dogs that live in long-term stress will have a cup that is constantly filling up and so there is less room for more stress to fill it.  Dogs in constant stress will be increasingly likely to start reacting suddenly and intensely far more often.  It is important that when stressful things occur, we allow for the body to calm down and empty its stress cup.  Dogs with long term stress issues need to have what is causing that underlying anxiety addressed.

Teach a dog to learn to relax in the presence of triggers to stress and encourage relaxing occupations such as sniffing.  Take a day off from walking and spent a quiet day at home enjoying doggy massage, nosework, having fun playing or doing some relaxed training.  Allow for them to come down and empty out their stress cups, giving them greater tolerance for future stress events and decrease the likelihood for a trigger stacking event to occur.

Doggy Tips for Heat Waves

Doggy Tips for Heat Waves

Summer has finally decided to show up and bask us in her balmy weather!  How is everyone coping this heat?  Personally I have been ensconced in my home as much as possible until the evening while the Rat Pack have been content to sun bathe until they are panting.  I am glad this year not to be in my former dog walking job as this time of year was a mixture of sun burn, bug bites and sweat. So much sweat.  It also came with the added stress of making sure my charges were safe from over heating and dehydrating.

As a country, we love to cook ourselves in the limited time the UK has this weather.  But that doesn’t mean we should project that onto our 4 legged friends.  I’ve put together a list of tips and considerations during this period.

Out Walking

  • Change out your walking schedule to early morning or late evening, pick walks that have shade and a natural water supply such as a lake or stream. Take water with you on your walks if there isn’t.
  • Invest in a cool coat. These coats are great for Northern breeds and other dogs that don’t do well in the warm weather. A cool coat can be taken out on their walk for added comfort.
  • Get your car cool before you load your dog in it both before and after a walk. It doesn’t take long for a dog to suffer injury from being in a hot vehicle, even if you are in it.
  • Don’t leave your dog unattended in a car. If you do have to leave your dog in the car, make sure they have water and the car is sufficiently ventilated so it doesn’t heat up in your absence. Personally I wouldn’t bother risking it, things like cooling units can fail.  You also have the pet zealots in your area looking for an excuse to smash your window and abuse you on social media.
  • What colour is your dog? If you have a white dog or thin coated breed then you’ll need to slather them up in sun screen to protect them from burning. Equally bare in mind that darker dogs will absorb the heat more so will by affected quicker.
  • What breed is your dog? Short nosed breeds such as Frenchies and Boxers have a hard time keeping their temperature down and breathing sufficiently so they are likely to suffer faster even from just a jaunt in the garden.
  • This goes for overweight and elderly dogs! They are far more likely to suffer in this weather as well so need to be taken into consideration.
  • Think of the surfaces you are walking your dogs on. Place your hand on the ground, can you keep it there for more than 5 seconds? If not then it’s too hot and can burn your dog’s paws.  Note especially for concrete, tarmac, rock and sand surfaces.
  • Shorten your walks, in this weather, dogs heat up like you do so cutting a walk a big shorter will stop them getting too hot and bothered.
  • Consider not walking your dog at all. Yeah, I know, blasphemy, but I know I sure as hell can’t be bothered to do much in this weather. Your dog might be just as content to while the day away at home and enjoy some enrichment activities.

At Home

  • You can purchase special cool mats for your dog to lay on at home if they aren’t coping with the weather. An alternate to this is to soak towels in water and let the dog lay on it or drape it over them. The evaporation acts to cool the dog.
  • Frozen treats are a great way for a dog to stay cool and enjoy the weather. You can purchase special doggy ice creams to keep in your fridge or make your own. Better yet, freeze you own concoction or the dogs dinner into puzzle feeders like Kongs and get the dual effect of coolness and enrichment!  Take away boxes with water and kibble/treats frozen in it are another idea.
  • Kiddie paddling pools are super cheap and another great way for dogs to keep cool. Add in their toys and enjoy splashing around with them. You can even buy the hard plastic variety to prevent punctures.
  • Bobbing for frozen peas and carrots is a simple and yet engaging activity that you can pull out at short notice. Most households have frozen veg to hand and plonking some in a bowl of water can keep your pooch happily engaged.
  • Set up a shady area in your garden if you don’t have any natural shade already. Being cooped up solely in the house can be boring so by setting up a shady spot outside, it provides another area to enjoy with all the sights, smells and sounds of the neighbourhood.
  • Keep your dog’s coat brushed and not clogged with hair. A dog’s coat is their air con as well, shaving a dog can actually make them feel the heat more.

You need to be aware of the signs that your dog is suffering and at risk of heatstroke.  Look out for the following symptoms:

  • Excessive and ongoing panting
  • Brick-red gums
  • Lethargic, collapsed, seizures
  • Excessive drooling
  • Vomiting

Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

Everyone loves a greying snoot!

One of my dogs is Tizzy a.k.a. Fatty Boomboom, a Parsons Russell Terrier, she’s known as the ‘queen’ in the household and all the rest of The Rat Pack know not to mess with her.  She is also happy to have a good old rough and tumble with them and often initiates play sessions.  She has one true love, in her squeaky ball.  Overall, Tizzy is a bad ass.  Tizzy is also getting on in her years.  That doesn’t stop her from enjoying walks with the pack or going out Mantrailing in all sorts of places.  I often get comments from people about how she doesn’t look her 14 going on 15 years and how astonished they are about all the things we do with her.

Life’s sweet when you’re a Rat Dog.

And it got me thinking, do people just let their older dogs go out to pasture?  I know Tizzy’s not happy to be put out to pasture.  Yes, she sleeps a lot, as older dogs will, yes she is a little incontinent in her sleep, but medication is managing that.  Tizzy is loving life, is fit and mentally ‘with it’.  I attribute that to maintaining an active lifestyle for her.  How many times have I heard the phrase ‘use it or loose it’ referenced for keeping the human mind sharp and your body trim?  The same can be said for dogs.

Still loving life!

I wonder if by allowing an older dog to just be left to sleep and mooch about the house, we do more harm than good.  Leaving a dog to while the way the hours and not engage them with life and enrichment, gives them nothing to look forward to, to invigorate them, to want to keep going.  I’m not saying to run your older dog ragged, you do need to slow them down gradually as their body allows.  Tizzy was hiking up mountains a few years ago, I won’t take her hiking now as she’s starting to stiffen up.  But instead, I have found other ways to exercise and stimulate her mind.  I’ve created a list of suggestions of things that I do with Tizzy and you can do too:

  • Mantrailing is great for her, it’s a gentle physical workout but a great exercise for the mind with all that sniffing and problem solving,  She didn’t even start this sport until she was 13, and took to it like a duck to water.  She gets a couple walks a week with the rats for an hour plus, then has rest days and shorter walks for the rest of the week.
  • In fact, nosework in general is perfect for the older dog.  Any dog really, but we are here for the oldies today.  The dog sees the world as a cornucopia of smell so engaging that important sense is highly rewarding for them.  It gets that grey matter working hard.  Either take up a Scentwork class, or simply sprinkle their dinner into the grass and have them forage for it.  There are so many games and activities you can do to engage that snooter and as a result, have a mentally sharp older dog.
  • Vary the walks, go somewhere different and let your dog experience the new sights and smells and things going on.  They don’t have to be long walks, but if you think your dog’s fitness has slipped a bit then build them up very slowly and watch for joint issues.
  • Go to places where your dog can do lots of swimming.  Swimming is a great low impact exercise to keep your dog fit and their joints healthy.  Tizzy is a odd terrier in that she loves to swim.  I throw her ball for her and she gets the joy of chasing the ball without the harsh impact of it getting thrown on a grass surface.
  • Play with your dog.  Just because they are older now doesn’t mean they don’t love a good old rough house with you.  I play some gentle tuggy with Tizzy, she also loves ‘attacking’ my hand when I scratch under her chin and massage the folds of her neck.  She likes to run off and come back for a bottom ‘spank’, then run off and so on and so forth.
  • I do proprioception with her with some doggy parkour.  Using things around me to gently work and stretch her muscles while out on a walk.  It’s like a relaxed yoga, just to keep the flexibility in her muscles and maintain suppleness so she doesn’t stiffen up.
  • You CAN teach an old dog new tricks.  Do some nice short training sessions with your older dog.  Age is just a number and just because they are ‘x’ amount of years, doesn’t mean they can’t learn new tricks.

I hope this blog has given those of you who aren’t too sure how to keep their older pooch engaged and fit, some ideas to implement.  No matter what you do, keep your older dog’s brain switched on and they can live a much more enriching and fulfilling ‘retirement’.  If taking the time to do a bit more means a couple more happy years, I’m all for it.

Choosing the Right Trainer

Picking the right dog trainer for you and your dog can really be a field of landmines.  The career of dog training and behaviour is becoming an increasingly popular one and often a natural progression for some dog walkers.  But how do you know who to trust with your dog’s training?  Unfortunately, the dog training and behaviour industry is an unregulated one, and Joe Bloggs off the street who has never even owned a dog can set up and call themselves a trainer.  The average owner therefore has no one easy way to access all the details of trainers in their area.  So where to even begin?

Firstly, you need to have a look at who is being recommended locally by your friends, family and fellow dog owners.  Once you have a list of names then check out their websites and facebook for reviews, testimonials, but also the content of those pages.  A trainer or behaviourist who is actively engaging with the public and sharing dog training information is likely one who enjoys learning and keeping up to date with modern training methods.

Are any of these trainers accredited with a dog trainer organisation?  As I said earlier, there is no official regulator for the dog training industry but there are respected organisations that train and assess their members.  For example I am training with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) who advocate force-free training methods.  There is also the Institute of Modern Dog Training (IMDT), Pet Professional Guild (PPG) and the Association of Pet Behaviour Councillors (APBC) all who are well respected by many trainers and behaviourists as they advocate ethical and positive training methods. What ever methods used, you at least want someone who is adequately trained and competent in using them.

You also need to like the person who is going to train you and your dog.  Make sure you call and have a chat with the trainer of your choice to get a feel of their personality.  You will be working very closely with this person, so someone that annoys you isn’t going to benefit your dog.  You will find yourself questioning them and unwilling to train and will ultimately find it a waste of money.  You also need someone who will be reliable and follow through with the training programme they lay out and continually support you.  Dog training is an on going process so a trainer that flies in and shows you some tricks then disappears off the face of the Earth is a big red light.

Know that you can say no.  If you go with a trainer and the methods they are using make you feel uncomfortable, or don’t mesh with your thinking, then speak up for yourself and your dog and if needs be, politely walk away.  Some trainers prefer more hands on methods with dogs and use corrections or other ‘aversive’ ways to stop a dog’s problem behaviour, others prefer a hands-off approach and using only positive reinforcement, some use both.  There is a spectrum of ways to train a dog, for me it comes down to two things, ethics and your relationship with your dog.  If the training methods go against your ethics, walk away.  If you think the methods will be detrimental to your relationship with your dog, walk away.

Be  prepared.

I’m serious; there isn’t a timeline on dog training.  This is a sentient being we are talking about, not a robot to programme.  How you progress on your training is ultimately up to you and your dog.  Don’t beat yourself up about it, or get dragged down by the set backs (you will have these).  A good trainer also knows how to work with the person as well as the dog, positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for humans too!

A great sign of a good dog trainer is one who communicates and works with other trainers in their area.  There is a great deal to dog behaviour and training, and trainers have strengths and weaknesses in various areas.  A trainer who will be happy to admit that they aren’t too experienced in that area and are either willing to refer you to someone else or bring in another trainer to help, shows commitment to your dog’s wellbeing over pride and everything else.

I hope this has helped you see the wood through the trees if you are struggling with finding a trainer.  Whether it be myself, or one of my colleagues, make sure that you go with your gut when choosing a trainer and do what’s right for your dog!  Dog trainers are owners and dog lovers too, so we can understand you putting your pooch first.