It was the perfect storm.

It was a clear example of trigger stacking. The day had been over-exciting. There had been lots of people in the house. The dogs had had too many treats. They will have done their usual barking at people in the park behind their garden.

Then a delivery man in Dayglo came to the door. A family member followed him back down the path where they talked over the gate.

Trigger stacking led to the bite

Boba

He had forgotten to shut the front door behind him.

Boba flew out of the house barking. He leapt high in the air at the man and caught his mouth. The bite required several stitches. Now, unsurprisingly, there is a court case pending.

Boba is a three-year-old Jack Russell mix who lived in a pound in Greece until he was eight months old. He’s a perky, affectionate little dog. He lives with Gibson, a Setter mix who was a Greek street dog and a super-soft and loving twelve-year-old Cocker Spaniel called Benson.

When I arrived Gibson went and hid, but the other two were very friendly and excited.

What alarms Boba is hearing or seeing people out the front in the street and people in the park out the back. All three dogs bark. Very likely, being dogs, they believe that it’s their barking that eventually drives the people away from their territory.

Although Boba is territorial when anyone is outside the gate, once a person enters the house he is usually very friendly. He has no history of biting.

He’s fine, too, when they meet people out on walks away from the house.

Management.

The first thing we discussed was management – precautions.

They will put a baby gate a few feet in from their front door that will be kept shut all the time. If it’s kept shut as a matter of habit, there will be a kind of air-lock making a repetition of the attack almost impossible.

They will also introduce Boba to a basket muzzle – just in case they need it. It could be a requirement of the court that he wears one.

Trigger stacking.

The second thing is to deal with is the trigger stacking, to reduce the continual topping up of arousal levels in all three dogs. They all fire one another up.

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. Here is a nice visual explanation of trigger stacking.

Reducing arousal levels can be very boring. Greetings need to be calmer, rough play toned down with more brain games, more chewing, hunting and foraging instead. Friends and family need persuading to help by not being over-excited and winding them up.

Even the food they eat can make a big difference.

I believe that if Boba’s basic arousal levels had been a lot lower, then he would have had enough ‘to spare’ when he ran out of the front door to the delivery man at the gate. He would have been less likely to fly at him. It was one trigger too many.

Territorial barking.

Crucial to the whole thing is to deal with the dogs’ territorial barking. At present they have a dog flap which is left open all the time. Even when the owners are out their dogs can be barking in the garden at people they hear. Boba will be continually rehearsing territorial aggression so it’s little wonder he put it into practice on that fateful occasion.

Benson

Currently, like many people, they have tried water spray and anti-bark collars but this doesn’t stop the dog feeling angry or scared inside. The opposite in fact. They may ignore the barking until it gets too much and then shout at the dogs.

Barking is a trigger. It ignites a dog’s stress levels.

The humans are the ‘dog-parents’ so protection duty should be their job. They should intervene immediately and deal with it, thanking the dogs and calling them away. The dogs should come if interrupted quickly enough and rewarded with food. Blocking barking areas and shutting the dog flap will make this a lot easier.

When I was there I pre-empted barking a couple of times. I head a door slam and the dogs perk up, but before they had time to start I brightly said ‘Okay’. No barking.

Now, not only will Boba not be physically able to bite someone at the gate again, after a while he shouldn’t feel he needs to. He will be generally calmer as will all three dogs. He will be taught that follow-through isn’t his job.

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 with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Boba. 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 or any form of aggression is concerned. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).