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I talk about trigger stacking a lot. It’s in my typical first-session spiel for new clients, I talk about it frequently in follow-up sessions, and I even use the term to describe my own emotional state. So, what the heck is it?
Trigger stacking refers to that phenomenon when a bunch of smaller stressors or triggers stack or add on top of each other to produce a different reaction than if just one of them happened.
We’ve all had those days where nothing goes right. You forgot to set your alarm the night before and wake up late. Then your car has trouble starting. Then you hit every single red light on the way to work. By the time you finally make it, you’re close to bubbling over. And then someone makes an innocuous observation that they beat you to work today. You explode.
That’s trigger stacking. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s not that the innocuous observation was so stressful that it alone elicited the explosion. It was because, after everything that happened before it, that little bit of stress was enough to push you over the edge. Had it been a normal, relatively stress-free morning and your coworker just happened to have arrived before you and made the same remark, it likely wouldn’t have elicited an explosion.
We all experience this phenomenon, so let’s take a peek at what that looks like for a dog who’s reactive to other dogs. They go outside in the yard in the morning and see a dog a few doors down. A little bit of stress. They come inside and the neighbor dog can be heard through the window. A little bit more stress. We go to work and they watch– and react at– dogs walking past the window all day. More stress. We come home from work and take them out for a walk and even though we’re trying to avoid other dogs and keep a healthy distance, every dog they see still results in blusterous reactivity. They were stressed before the walk even began. We didn’t stand a chance.
Or, last week Ellen talked about managing stranger danger behaviors. Trigger stacking for stranger danger pets could look like a party instead of having one guest over. Or having one or two people at a time but one right after another the whole day. There are a lot of slightly different scenarios that can elicit trigger stacking, but it boils down to several triggers in a relatively short amount of time.
Why is this important?
Stress impacts behavior. We have only to look at our daily lives to see how much stress impacts and affects behavior. Heck, this last year was one giant lesson showcasing how stress affects behavior in different ways and in different individuals. And even though it might seem like our pets are living stress-free lives, they aren’t. They experience stress, too, and it affects how they behave.
We at Pet Harmony wouldn’t have jobs if stress didn’t affect behavior. It’s the culprit behind maladaptive behaviors, including aggression, fear, and anxiety. And, when we recognize the role that stress plays in those behaviors, we can address those behaviors much more effectively.
Here is a great YouTube video by Donna Hill that gets into trigger stacking and stress hormones.
It’s not just within a few minutes
It takes stress hormones a while to leave the body. The actual amount of time changes depending on the species and the particular hormone. Some last for a few minutes, others hours, and some last for a few days, and chronic stress impacts the amount of time as well. It’s much more complicated than what we can get into here (and I’m certainly not an expert in physiology!), but the short of it is that stressful events can impact behavior for days after. This means that we can see the effects of trigger stacking culminating over longer periods of time than just a few minutes. What happened this morning can impact the afternoon can impact the evening.
What can we do about trigger stacking?
For those of you who have followed us for a while, the answer should come as no surprise: management! Management is one of the best ways that we can mitigate the effects of stress and trigger stacking (there are others, too, that we won’t get into here.)
Management means setting up the environment so that your pet is less likely to experience stressors or triggers or avoiding them when we can’t arrange the environment. This looks like getting physical exercise in the backyard instead of going on walks in a dog-filled neighborhood. This looks like putting your pet away when the repair person comes. This looks like not picking up a pet who tries to bite you when they get picked up.
We’re often asked about management being a band-aid. It is! But a necessary band-aid. Not having management would be like not dressing a wound after surgery. Is the bandage fixing the wound? No. Is it preventing it from getting worse and having other ancillary problems? You bet. Let’s not knock management just because it’s a band-aid. It’s still a necessary and integral part of a behavior modification plan, especially when you take into consideration that brains under stress do not learn well. If we want the training and behavior modification techniques we’re using to work, we need a brain that can learn it. And that means management.
- Take a look at your pet’s stressors. Do you see multiple stressors happening throughout the day? If so, you probably have some trigger stacking on your hands.
- If you’re not sure if trigger stacking is at play, keep a log of your pet’s triggers and behaviors. It’s much easier to see trends this way.
- After identifying triggers, take a look at your management plan. If you don’t have one, make one. If you do have one, take an objective look at what you’re doing well and if there are areas for improvement.
- Want more information about how stress impacts behavior? Join us for our free 5 Tips for Addressing Your Dog’s Problem Behaviors webinar tonight!