Updated: Oct 13, 2019
Yes, even qualified dog trainers and dog professionals can get it wrong…
But what did I get wrong?
Well, I had taken my two Staffies, Bailie and Ryder, out for a walk in the afternoon and left Cooper alone with 2 of his favourite treats… Raw marrowbones. Cooper does suffer from Separation Anxiety, and has made some steady progress these last few months, so I figured 2 marrowbones would keep him busy long enough for the twins to enjoy a walk in the afternoon…. Mistake number 1…
When I arrived home, there was a poop on the stairs and a wee patch on his rug in his safe space… he had been stressing because he was also panting, “oops, I’m so sorry mate” I say as I open the front door and let him jump straight into the boot of the car.
Now, if I had thought about it and not rushed around I wouldn’t have put him in the car, I would have done a street walk, which is what we’ve been doing this past few months and there has been remarkable progress in Cooper’s behavior and confidence. I even chastised myself on the way to wherever I was driving; I didn’t know at that point because I was all flustered. Mistake Number 2… I should have turned around, got him out of the car and taken him on our regular street walk.
We arrived at the Vale where it is wooded, wild and inhabited by lots of wildlife… Cooper LOVES wildlife… By now Cooper was quite excited, so I decided to focus his attention onto myself and some training. At this point I had my gundog whistle, and we were working on Recall and Stop, both of which he knows, but instead of using a voice command, we are in the process of switching from word to whistle. It was working, he remained focused on me.
Then came the rabbits…. Mistake Number 3…
I know that there are rabbits in this particular area, as I walk here often. I also encourage my walking dogs and the twins to sniff out the scents of the rabbits. Their behaviour changes to attentive worker hounds when they catch a whiff of those speedy little critters, however, Cooper being the self-indulgent, arousal seeking dog that he is, decided to go crashing through the trees to actually try and catch one! His recall went to zero and I had to wait until he lost interest before he could physically listen to me, when I heard him stop, I whistled him back to me and then whistled him to stop, which he did beautifully! So, we carried on…
We then went on to do some Parkour training, he performed as I asked, getting rewards for his tasks and his ability to listen to me. We were working fabulously together, and he was having lots of fun carrying out his training.
That’s when the guy with the off-lead collie appeared… I got Coopers attention to me with his treats and put him on lead, leaving enough room that he wouldn’t react, and he didn’t. To be fair the collie was more focused on his tennis ball than anything else and passed calmly, waiting for his owner to throw it for him. Cooper and I turned back and headed for home. I could see he was becoming agitated and more aroused, to the point he could barely listen to me.
Then came the squirrel in the tree above… that was it… Cooper lost his sh*t and was walking on his back legs, rearing up, screeching and jumping all over… I had to get out of there, he was no longer able to listen or communicate and I was wasting my time if I tried, so I just walked… and dragged him behind me.
So, what happened?
It was just a squirrel in a tree… he’d gotten past so much beforehand without reacting so irrationally… why take it out on the poor squirrel? Why react so loudly and over the top?
What had happened here was a typical case of Trigger Stacking.
Every dog has a threshold, just like people. When certain situations happen that make a dog or person uncomfortable, they can stack up to tip you over this threshold (have you ever said to yourself, “I’ve had it up to here, I’m going to snap!”) That is Trigger Stacking
A series of incidents, that on their own, would have no outward effects, or at the very least would arouse Cooper slightly. These can be managed quite effectively with treats or distractions. However, stack all of the incidents and my mistakes together and they tipped him over his threshold, and he was no longer able to cope with even the slightest of arousing situations. Below is an example of this…
Below are 5 simple rules you can follow to ensure that you are fully equipped to deal with Trigger Stacking in your dog, or even your own life!
1. Be aware – Know what your dog’s triggers are and what their values are i.e. does your dog react more to strangers than he does a passing bike? Place a value on your dogs’ reactivity and you will have a rough idea on how many triggers he can handle before he is over threshold.
2. Be Vigilant – Be aware of your surroundings. Look ahead, look around, be prepared, but not poised… tension can be felt down the lead so don’t be poised ready for action, but do be aware of what is appearing around you so that you can take action, for your dog’s sake.
3. Read your dog – Know your dogs’ critical distance, understand his body language and know when he is becoming uncomfortable. That way you can prepare to move away from a potential trigger before it can have a detrimental effect on your dog.
4. Change your routine – If you know your dog becomes aroused in certain situations, go somewhere else. Go to quieter places, places that are more open so you can see what is coming, go to places that your dog is visibly relaxed when visiting. Cooper especially likes the beach and the moors; big open spaces where he can relax because no one is around. If your dog doesn’t like off lead, friendly dogs approaching, take him on street walks and build his confidence from there.
5. Relax – Enjoy some quiet time with your dog. If they are uncomfortable or scared on walks, why take them out? Stay home and tire them out with scent games, finding treats or do some training. Have mini play sessions in the house or garden and build their confidence and ultimately your bond. If your dog has had a particularly stressful episode on a walk, they will need to recover for at least 48 hours due to their Cortisol levels, so take that time to work on your connection with him before attempting to go out again. Your dog will thank you for it!
Had I stuck my original plan of not walking Cooper off lead in an exciting place, (when he was already in a stressed state) then adding to that all his triggers, we probably would have had a peaceful and calm walk. However, I am only human, and so are you, so if you ever find yourself in that situation, follow these simple rules, and you will be able to recover quickly and start back on the path to calm once again,
Til next time