Trigger Stacking

Sassy was fetched on Sunday and on Wednesday I was there with her, the couple and their two children.

Forward planning.

They had done some perfect forward planning in advance of getting their rescue dog home from the shelter.

They are not a family that took a dog into their lives upon impulse. Absolutely the opposite. Over a few weeks they had visited the two-year-old mixed breed several times. She particularly bonded with the little girl, aged 8.

They were told that Sassy is a German Shepherd Husky mix but I can’t for the life of me see any Husky. Staffie maybe. She’s smaller than a GSD – much the size and shape of Zara, my mini Labrador.

There is one particular cloud on the horizon and that is her possible ‘aggression’ to other dogs. This is based on one incident. In order to show the family how Sassy was with other dogs, the shelter staff brought three dogs into the area, one at a time.

The first dog she ignored. They tell me she took no notice of it at all. It’s unusual for a dog to truly ignore another dog suddenly entering her immediate environment. I suspect she may deliberately have looked away from it as dogs do when they feel uneasy about something.

The second dog was large and noisy. It was aggressive and scary but Sassy managed well.

The third dog was brought in, a peaceful Staffie. Sassy hurled herself at it and pinned it down – no actual injury.

This to me spells ‘trigger stacking’, where the events add up.

Already she will have been aroused by being with her visitors and probably a couple of shelter staff. Coming out of her kennel in itself will have been exciting.

To quote Sally Hopkins, each time a dog is over excited or is caused stress, the adrenal and thyroid glands, testosterone and hypothalamus begin to increase their production. The output from these glands reach a peak 10-15 minutes after the incident, and takes between 3-5 days to return to the level they were at before the incident.

trigger stacking

This is why certain dogs can become aggressive for no apparent reason when meeting another dog; they are still experiencing the rush of adrenaline etc. from a build up of small things or an incident that happened 10-15 minutes beforehand (thank you Dog Games for the diagram).


Trigger stacking

Trigger stacking will also have been happening from the moment Sassy was let out of her kennel to be taken to her new life.

Just imagine how arousing entering a new home must be to a dog, particularly a dog that has had little variety for months.

First the lead is attached and she’s led away from the place she knows well. Then into the car with the new smells and sounds.

Then into the house. A total bombardment of new smells from all quarters. Her new humans hovering about even if consciously trying to leave her alone. Then where should she toilet? She explores but every now and then meets a barrier – a correction of some sort. She is learning.

She’s very reactive to birds in the garden. I wonder how long it has been since she sat and watched birds? She worries when she hears a dog bark – unsurprising when she had been surrounded by so much barking. There are further new people coming into the house.

I will have barely touched upon all the things she will have been experiencing and processing over the past three days, things that will slowly have been adding to her stress levels. Trigger stacking. She responded initially by having a crazy, manic few hours before settling down a bit.

Such was their forward planning that despite being at work all day they had already made arrangements so Sassy wouldn’t be left for more than a couple of hours at a time. They had also spoken to me and booked me well in advance.

I have given them a few suggestions to get them started off on the right foot and will go again in a couple of weeks when she has settled in and may just perhaps be less acquiescent and accepting.

She is quickly getting the idea of not jumping on the sides and they will now be making what they do want her to do -resisting or getting back down – rewarding.

There are a couple of restrictions that she may balk against eventually.

They have a a small white rug in front of the sofa and they don’t want her on this. It keeps her away from sitting beside them while they watch TV but this may be a big missed opportunity for bonding.

The other rule that may be a challenge is they want her to toilet only in a very small patch of stones behind the shed. They always accompany her at the moment and have so far been successful. They will need not to let her out without them for a while if they want this to become a habit and also reward her actually on the ground as she finishes to emphasise the location. I suggested they put the toileting on cue with special words – ‘be clean’ perhaps.

Apart from some pacing and panting, Sassy seems to be settling down brilliantly. I gave her a bone to chew which she worked on enthusiastically – chewing being a great ‘unwinder’.  She was lying stretched out on the floor in no time, oblivious of people walking around her, like she was exhausted.

I am very happy that the family are keeping the dog in the garden and just outside the gate for now while she adjusts – well away from any other dogs – to give her stress levels time to go right down. A new home is a huge adjustment.

They are not over-fussing her. The children are doing their bit.

In a couple of weeks, in a calm and stable state she can start to be gradually re-introduced to the world outside their immediate environment with as little opportunity for ‘trigger stacking’ as possible.

I wonder what will come to the fore in a couple of weeks time when the ‘real dog’ comes out of her shell?


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 Sassy and I’ve not gone into exact details for that reason. 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. Every dog is different. 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)

Not an Easy First Dog

Lucy must have once before been loved.

Not an easy dog for first time dog ownersIn the few days since German Shepherd mix Lucy moved in with the young couple she has been through several stages as she begins to settle into a very different new life. She is their first dog so it’s a big adjustment for them also.

For the past six months the young dog has been living in a very ‘basic’ kennel situation. A chaotic and bleak place.

For six months she has had to toilet in the same place where she slept and ate, so it’s not surprising she initially had a couple of accidents in the house. Being their first dog that was something they’d not anticipated.

The young lady contacted me a couple of days after they had picked Lucy up because they were having difficulties on walks with the pulling, with her jumping about and her general excitability. She ‘wouldn’t listen’. She had growled at a friend coming in the front door. She’s their first dog and they weren’t quite prepared for this.

I visited on Lucy’s fifth day. She had already calmed down a bit. All toileting was now outside unless she was scared.

Her fearful reactivity to people coming into the house was increasing however.

When I arrived she barked at me loudly. I didn’t react in any way and, unusually, she didn’t pee with fear. I rBEautiful dog for first time dog ownersestrained the young couple from fussing her as this can transfer their own anxiety and I sat down. Lucy stopped barking. I dropped her a piece of food and she took another from my hand.

Then the beautiful dog came and sat on my foot. She rested with her head lovingly beside my knee.

My heart melted.

Over the next few weeks I shall be helping these new dog owners to field anything that Lady may happen to throw at them as they work through the ‘honeymoon period’. We are working on loose lead walking, a suitable diet, leaving her alone happily and other things.


We want to nip the fearful reaction in the bud.

The young lady contacted me this morning (the day after my visit) to tell me Lucy is now barking more at people and even cars that pass. The sitting room has a long picture window looking out over the road. Each day it gets worse.

The more frequently Lucy engages in this barking the more of a habit it will become, so now is the time to act. People’s instinct, particularly if it’s their first dog, is to try to stop the dog barking by letting the dog know she’s ‘doing wrong’.

In my opinion the only truly efficient way to change the barking is to change the emotions in Lucy that are driving her to bark. It is certainly fear in her case. There may be a touch of instinctive guarding or territorial emotion too.

When she barks – or better still if they can pre-empt the barking – they need to reassure her and call her away, rewarding her for doing so. If this doesn’t work, they will need to go over to her, help her and remove her. Any scolding will just make her feel worse about whatever she is barking at.

Why not, however, get to the root of the barking – change how Lucy is feeling about the people and cars going past?

I suggest they take her out the front on lead with a pocket of her food.

Stand. Watch. Listen.

With everything that goes past, feed her. If she’s reluctant to eat she needs tastier food and they may need to stand further back, inside the open front door. They can scatter food on the ground so she associates the scary area where she watches people approaching the house with something good.

Then they can come indoors and do the same thing from the sitting room window – watching and feeding, listening and feeding.

They may need to do this exercise very regularly for weeks and any time in the future when she looks like reverting.

It’s easy to see how Lucy’s fear of people both passing the house and approaching the house is linked to her fear of people entering the house. It may also be linked to her having been trapped in a kennel for the best part of each day for six months, unable to escape when someone walked towards her and entered.

With different management of visitors and Lucy feeling differently about  people approaching or passing the house, the fear of callers shouldn’t be too hard to crack. She is wonderfully friendly and affectionate once she’s feeling safe.

She should certainly no longer have access to the view out of that picture window.

Lucy’s reaction to people coming to the house could snowball into a bigger problem if not caught straight away. It’s unlikely that people with their first dog will have sufficient knowledge of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning without some help.


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 Lady. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog along with listening to friends can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, making sure that we are dealing with the real causes. I also provide moral support which people will probably need for a while. 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 Get My Help page)