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Reactive Dogs 101: Trigger Stacking

Have you ever had a crummy day where everything seemed to go wrong? You get to your car and you have a flat tire, you spill coffee on your shirt before an important meeting at work, you drop your phone in the toilet, and by the time you get home you’re exhausted and frankly pissy and take it out on your family? 

Dogs experience this too – it’s called trigger stacking. A single trigger on a walk is easier to manage than when you run into all twelve things that set your dog off. Why is that? Just like human beings, dogs can get overwhelmed with emotional responses and shut down. For reactive dogs, that shut down can manifest as a heightened state of reactivity. 

So what’s the way to manage this? 

First and foremost, work to manage the environment your dog trains in as much as possible. If you’re taking your dog for a walk and see another dog on the way, use that making space skill to make sure that your dog has enough area to disengage from that trigger.

Run into six dogs on the walk and can’t find the space and your dog can’t handle it? Don’t stress too much. Maybe you go home and give it a half hour with an enrichment (like a stuffed kong, bully stick, puzzle toy) to help reset their mind and then try again.

Storm is dog reactive and working through lots of triggers.

Practicing a “down-wait” is also a great way to work on calming a stressed dog down as well. 

Each time you find the space and continue rewarding for disengaging, these triggers will gradually minimize and become minor annoyances for you and your dog. Whenever your dog isn’t successful, think about how you can manage their environment to help them manage the triggers differently the next time. Each training “failure” is more information for you to use to figure out how else you can break down the steps and training. 

Owning a reactive dog is challenging. It requires you to be in training mode most of the time when you are on walks and out in public. My biggest piece of advice for those of you struggling with this is to know that you are not alone. My beloved Sunny was reactive, and working through his difficulties was hard, but so rewarding. 

Boone the Doodle working on distractions on a walk.

Know that if your dog is having a hard time – that means that it might feel like they’re giving you a hard time. They’re not, use these misses to help you help them. Mindset, mindset, mindset. 

Be patient, and if you have to adopt a mantra to deal with a reactive dog so that you’re kind to yourself and to them, remember: “They’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time.”

It’s up to you to help them overcome these challenges. 

Next we’ll talk about how your dog’s physical health can affect their emotional well being and how you can set them up for success. 

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