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.

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