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Understanding Trigger Stacking in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Protect your dog from trigger stacking

Protect your dog from trigger stacking

What's Trigger Stacking in Dogs?

Trigger stacking may affect even the calmest, most well-rounded dog. You would never imagine him engaging in aggressive behavior. Dogs, humans, and any other living things all have a breaking point.

Do you remember going through a phase when everything seemed to go wrong? You may have had an important exam coming up, and on those critical days when you were planning to study, you had a collection agency call you because you forgot to pay a bill. Then you had your neighbor's dog relentlessly bark, and friends calling you at the most inopportune times. Then your computer overheated and it failed to turn on.

Concerned that you've lost all your files, including important study material, you call a computer professional specializing in data recovery who charges you a whopping $1,800 as if it was peanuts. So when a salesperson later knocks at your door despite your "no soliciting" sign, you finally can't take it anymore and you yell at him, "I don't need no friggin' termite inspection!" As you close the door in the salesman's face, you know you just had enough.

Meanwhile, those around you look at you shocked because they have never seen you that mad before.

That's a case of trigger stacking. I like to compare trigger stacking to volcanoes. When I was in school studying geology, we once had to study the difference between effusive volcanoes and explosive volcanoes.

The effusive ones were the friendly volcanoes that mostly meant no harm. Their dissolved gasses escaped readily allowing the runny lava to flow downhill easily. Because of this, they featured gently-sloping shapes such as those pleasant-looking volcanoes seen in Hawaii.

The explosive volcanoes, on the other hand, had viscous magma that caused dissolved gasses to be unable to escape allowing pressure to build up. At some point, the pressure was so great that, in order for the gasses to escape, an explosive eruption had to take place.

When this happened, rock and lava fragments were sent into the air with accompanying loud, booming noises. Because of this, these volcanoes are considered more dangerous and they feature steeply shaped slopes such as the ones found in Chile.

So is your dog an effusive volcano or an explosive one? Does he cope well with stress or does he explode? To a great extent, this depends on genetics and his upbringing, but it also depends on you. Do you manage your dog's environment so that he is better able to cope with stress or do you let stress build up until your dog explodes?

In dogs, trigger stacking is a bit tricky. Unlike humans who can warn you when they are reaching their breaking point, dogs are silent and talk more with their bodies.

In order to prevent trigger stacking you will need to:

  1. Be familiar with your dog's body language
  2. Understand his triggers
  3. Be familiar with his threshold levels

Here are some tips on recognizing trigger stacking and preventing it from happening in the first place.

Tips for Recognizing and Preventing Trigger Stacking in Dogs

In order to understand trigger stacking, you will need to understand how cumulative stress affects your dog. Each time Rover is exposed to a trigger that causes stress, his brain is bathed in a bath of stress hormones. Just as in explosive volcanoes, stress is allowed to build up and accumulate. Eventually, the dog goes over his bite threshold and explodes by acting aggressively and/or biting. Here are tips on how to prevent these instances from happening.

Learn More About Your Dog’s Triggers

Is your dog stressed when you take him to the vet? When you must clip his nails? Watch your dog carefully when he is dealing with a series of triggers taking place.

Here is an example of how a dog may undergo trigger stacking. Rover is a three-year-old Golden retriever that gets stressed at times. On Wednesday he goes to see the vet, and because he has some odd symptoms, they take him to the backroom to get blood drawn and a urine sample is taken. Because he is not collaborative, they decide to muzzle him.

Once home, his owner is expecting guests, a whole family with kids comes to visit right when Rover would like to recover. The kids pester him, trying to chase him and get him to wear a hat. Later that evening, the owner has to force him to take his pills which he hates. Rover gets very little rest that day.

The day after, he is taken to the dog park, where he is forced to deal with a bully dog who likes to hump. Later, he has obedience classes but for some reason, he is unable to focus and the trainer forces him to sit by pushing on his rump. Once home, he wants to sleep but he has to take his pills again. Later, the kids want to play with him and cuddle. One of the kids tries to hug him, and for the first time ever, Rover shows his teeth. Fortunately, the issue is taken seriously and the dog is finally left alone to rest to recover from all the cumulative stress.

Learn How to Recognize Signs of Stress

For more on this, read "Signs of stress in dogs." Some signs can be very subtle such as lip licks, turning the head, yawning, losing hair, others are more obvious such as trembling, whining, and trying to flee.

Learn Your Dog’s Threshold

How much can he take before getting stressed? Is he bothered if a dog is 10 feet away or if it's a much closer interaction? Does he tolerate kids until they start interacting with him? Is he OK at the vet, but starts getting really nervous when he is getting a shot? Recall past events where he acted stressed and evaluate where his breaking point was and in the future let him stay well below that.

Manage Their Environment and Look for Help

To prevent trigger stacking, do your best to manage your dog's environment. If your dog is bothered by close interactions with children, crate him. If your dog doesn't like other dogs in his face, keep him away from places where there are off-leash dogs. If your dog is scared of shots, try to see if the vet can come out in the parking lot to give them.

Also, look for help. To prevent trigger stacking from affecting your dog in the long run, you may want to let him face his fears in a systematic way that keeps him under his threshold and allows him to change his underlying emotions. Learn more about desensitization and counterconditioning. You may want to consult with a dog behavior professional to implement these methods correctly.

Play It Safe

When dogs are victims of cumulative stress or are sick, their bite threshold lowers. This means they are more likely to bite. Do your best to not put your dog in a position he cannot handle. These dogs aren't mean and they don't need to be euthanized, all they ultimately need is an effective stress reduction plan.

And remember: When dogs are stressed they release the hormone cortisol (a stress hormone) which remains in the body for quite some time. During this time, your dog's threshold will be lowered which means that should he be exposed to several triggers during this recovery time, it will have a cumulative effect making him more likely to react.

How Trigger Stacking Impacts Dogs and 5 Helpful Tips

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 27, 2013:

Thank you Ladydeonne!

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on July 26, 2013:

Very good information re trigger stacking by our beloved dogs. They, like humans have their breaking points. Your hubs are always right on target and helpful. Voted up, useful and shared. Thanks!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 26, 2013:

Thanks MJennifer! It's true! Even though it looks like the life of a dog may be all fun and play, they have their stressors as well and it can be simple little things that may go unnoticed. Have a great week-end!

Marcy J. Miller from Arizona on July 24, 2013:

Excellent article, Alexadry. I think the average dog owner, conditioned to rely on their ever-cheerful and easy-going dog, may easily fail to realize that the dog DOES have stressful life events. You do a terrific job of pointing them out.

Best -- MJ

Eiddwen from Wales on July 24, 2013:

Another wonderfully interesting and useful hub from you. Voted up.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 24, 2013:

Thanks for the votes up rose-the-planner!

rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on July 23, 2013:

I thought this was a very insightful article regarding Trigger Stacking for dogs. You offered some great tips. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up)