Triggers Stacking. One Thing After Another

Stunning Flo is nine months old. She was rescued from Romanian streets at 5 months old – an Akbash – a Turkish sheep guarding dog.

I believe a series of unfortunate events has most likely coincided with a particularly vulnerable period in Flo’s life – a fear period. Had these same things happened a bit earlier (or later) and maybe not in such quick succession, all would have been okay.

Triggers stacking up.

A bang triggers panicThe fears started just 2 weeks ago, before which Flo was confident and playful. The first of the triggers happened when the lady lifted her arms to shut the car boot door on her. It has happened many times before, but this time Flo panicked. The same thing happened a week later and now she wouldn’t get back into the car to go home.

The next of the triggers was a few days later – a bird scarer in the fields.

Then a motorbike revving scared her so this was added to the triggers.

Then another bang from the bird scarer. Flo was too close. She pulled the lead out of the lady’s hand and ran. Then, adding to the triggers, a boy on a bike made her jump.

Finally 10 days ago, off lead, another big bang. Flo ran off and was missing for 2 hours.

All these triggers stacking up over a short period of time has reuslted in Flo being in the state she’s now in.

Jumpy and stressed.

When I arrived, their other dog, Golden Retriever Zak, was out on a walk. Flo was scared of me. She startled when the gentleman happened to push the cutlery draw shut.

Then Zak came home. Flo was transformed. She was suddenly wriggly, confident and friendly!

Our work covers two areas: doing all they can to keep Flo’s general stress levels as low as possible and working on the triggers themselves – the bangs and other scary things.

This means no walks as Flo knows them just for now. Already on my advice they are leaving her at home when walking Zak.

Every time she’s out and caught unprepared by a bang of some sort – and now other things like a revving motorbike – it will merely make things worse.

Systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning.

They will manufacture their own bangs at home. These will start with soft taps leading to bangs eg: spoon on the table, saucepan lids gently somewhere out of the room or that cutlery drawer. They can build up to distant party poppers or cap gun – the other end of the house or way down the garden.

Recorded sounds may or may not work but worth a try. They can control the volume.

Flo can hear the bird scarer from inside their house if the wind is in the right direction. This will apparently carry on for another week so they can turn it into an advantage and work on it.

Exposing Flo carefully to bangs (desensitising), isn’t alone enough however. It’s what happens when the bang occurs that’s important – this is the counter-conditioning bit. A bang must trigger something good – in Flo’s case little bits of turkey will rain down (it has to be turkey as chicken doesn’t agree with Zak). The bang triggers turkey irrespective of what Flo is doing or feeling – whether she’s alarmed or whether she’s ignoring it.

They should have turkey to hand all the time so that unexpected ‘real life’ bangs always trigger turkey. We also looked into what to do if there had to be a short delay between bang and food.

Flo gets ball play in the garden for exercise and they are now starting to walk her again but near to home. Unfortunately Zak’s company on walks doesn’t help her reactivity to those triggers as it did with me in the house.

Human emotions.

It’s just possible that Flo is also picking up on her owners’ own emotions. The lady is understandably very upset for Flo who had done so well after a difficult start in life. The effect our own emotions have on our dog.

Slowly slowly catchee monkey.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Flo. Neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog, you can do much more harm than good. The case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where any form of fear is concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page).

Bird Scarer. The Curse of Dog Walkers.

Ten days ago a bird scarer detonated and if he’d not been on lead Bob would have legged it home. He has now become reluctant to walk again – as he had been a year ago when they first got him.

The Staffie Labrador mix is now four years old. Previously he was wary of the outside world and the couple have worked hard at enriching his life with walks.

It’s obvious that, apart from the recent escalating of his spooked behaviour due to the bird scarer, they have come a long way with him in one year. There are many things he can now handle that he couldn’t cope with a year ago and his ‘bounce-back’ recovery is a lot faster. 

Feeling unsafe.

Some of Bob’s problems with sudden sounds and feeling unsafe may well be genetic.

Bird scarer spooked himIn his home I met the sweetest, most friendly and well-mannered dog.

Despite their progress, there are many times when Bob has heard something distant, maybe inaudible to his humans, and put the anchors on. Their reaction has been to encourage and gently press him ahead.

The bottom line is that Bob’s spookiness is due to his feeling unsafe. This overwhelms everything else – even eating, and Bob loves his food.

Their task is twofold: to stop him being so jumpy in general and to work with sounds in particular.

They can do little about the random sudden noises that life throws at Bob, so in order to progress they need to generate their own, controlled sounds.


To advance further beyond where they have already got to themselves will require doing all they can to avoid forcing Bob over threshold. There will usually be a volume or intensity of a sound where he is aware of it but still feels safe. It could be a long way away. It could well be hearing a distant bang from inside the house.

The more he knows they will let him back away and always allow him an escape route, the less unsafe he should feel. This requires a long and loose lead, preferably a long line. He will then feel even more trusting of his humans.

So, they will set up controlled situations and generate sounds themselves. They then have control over when the bang happens and control over the volume and proximity of the bang.

They can record the bird scarer.

First the chosen sound needs pairing with food (chicken in Bob’s case) at a very low volume or distance. In brief it goes like this:

Start with a stream of distant or soft bangs, each triggering food. Bang=chicken, bang=chicken, bang=chicken….)

Gradually they make the bangs a bit more random and less regular – but not louder or closer yet. Gradually they become more sudden/unexpected.

Bit by bit they can increase volume or decrease distance.

Now, to make Bob as bomb-proof as possible, they should start on another sound and repeat the process.

As this second sound gets to the random and ‘sudden’ stage, it can be mixed with a previously ‘de-spooked’ sound. They can work their way up to party poppers heard from the furthest bedroom.

The sound must always cause chicken to drop.

Later they can introduce the sounds from outside in the garden. After all, it’s sounds outside that are the problem.

They can also experiment with Bob continuously chewing/eating during a session of varied bangs. A Kong filled with smelly tripe for instance.

It’s vital to keep Bob under that threshold.

This is the distance, volume or intensity where he’s aware of a bang but not disturbed by it.

Bit by bit this threshold should relax.

Real life bangs will continue to occur. Their reaction to a bird scarer whether distant or too close should be the same – chicken – regardless of whether he eats it. The bang triggers chicken, full-stop. The lead should be long and loose so Bob has some degree of escape. They should follow him to ‘safety’ instead of holding him tight or making him carry on.

If they can get back sub-threshold without going home, they can now occupy him with an alternative, fun activity to help him to bounce back.

Those locations contaminated by the bird scarer – and he can hear it from a long way, even his own garden – can be systematically de-contaminated using food.

The future for Bob and bangs is bright.


NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Bob and because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. Listening to ‘other people’, finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear is concerned. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)
Freddie is scared of bangs and TV

Can TV be Causing Dog’s Problems?

As I sat down they turned off their TV (as people do).

Freddie was friendly but restless whilst doing some quite determined nudging and nosing for attention before sitting and scratching and chewing himself. The vet wants to investigate further but for now he is on anti-histamine tablets.

After about twenty minutes he settled down, to stretch out peacefully on the floor.

The daughter, on her way out, popped her head round the door and remarked how calm Freddie was. This is quite unusual in the evening.

The five-year-old Border Collie was picked up as a stray in Ireland three years ago and thanks to the care of his loving owners he has fitted into their life really well. He is friendly and gentle, gets on really well with their two cats and is great with other dogs.

Freddie watching for animals on TV

TV has been turned on

Freddie’s two problems are that he is very reactive to animals on TV and he is scared of bangs. He hates the wind because it makes things clatter about. On walks he frequently bolts on hearing a gunshot or bird-scarer. He is a shaking mess with fireworks. Indoors he will suddenly begin to spook at something he has heard outside, inaudible to the humans.

In order that I could see how he was with animals on TV, I asked them to turn it on. Although there were no animals yet, within a couple of minutes he was no longer lying stretched out and relaxed. He was becoming increasingly agitated and beginning to chew himself. Then he looked at the TV, saw an animal, crouched, growled and then launched himself at it.

They turned the TV off again.

It took another twenty minutes before he was once more lying relaxed on the floor. The couple were amazed. It was such a graphic demonstration of the amount of stress TV was causing their dog, and like many people they have it on all the time they are sitting down in the evening.

We had tried turning the volume off, but by then he had seen the animal. I believe that the mere sound of the TV tells him that at any minute these beasts may be invading his room. It is possible that high background noise of the TV that we ourselves can’t hear may also trouble him. The TV makes him feel unsafe in his own home.

What can they do? They understandably didn’t feel that watching no more TV was an option, and besides, that would never address the problem. He needs to be desensitised carefully at a level he can handle, and counter-conditioned to accepting it. He already has a crate in the room, out of sight of the TV and where he happily goes at night, so to start with they can have the TV quiet and as soon as he shows any reactivity they can call him into his crate and give him something very special to chew – something like a favourite bone that he never has at any other time.

I strongly suspect that the raw skin condition due to his constant biting and scratching will also resolve itself as his stress levels reduce. With Freddie in a generally calmer state, they should more easily be able to work on the bang problem when they are out – starting by merely sitting on a bench somewhere he is reasonably comfortable, attached to a long line so he can’t bolt, and feeding him – ready to return to the car before things get too much for him.

Avoiding things altogether will get them nowhere, but he can make no progress, not even accept food, while he feels unsafe.

They will take their time and he will learn to trust them to keep him safe.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Freddie, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).