Do you ever have one of those days where things just seem to go wrong at every opportunity, and by the time you finish for the day, you feel a tired, frazzled wreck? You might wake up feeling a bit under the weather, so it takes you longer to complete your morning routine; you then leave for work a bit later than you'd intended, which means you hit the rush hour, making you late for work.
You then grab a coffee in the hope that it will perk you up a bit before an important meeting, but you spill it down your white blouse and have to dash into the ladies' toilet to try and clean yourself up. Then, to make matters worse, you drop your notes for your presentation down the toilet. Even though you've memorised it and don't really need the notes, you sit down on the toilet and have a good cry, your soggy, toilet-watered notes the absolute end of the world.
If this sounds horribly familiar, then you have experienced trigger stacking!
Each individual event may not be enough to tip you over the edge on a good day, but when they happen in multiples, when you're perhaps not feeling your best, they can feel absolutely overwhelming and much harder to cope with.
The cumulative effect of stress is something we need to be really aware of, not only to safeguard our own sanity, but to help our dogs cope with everyday life. If we don't give them the chance to recover from stressful events, it places them at greater risk of feeling less able to cope, and they are more likely to go over-threshold, often resulting in an explosive over-reaction.
THE STRESS BUCKET
The stress bucket analogy is a great way to represent this. Imagine a bucket with a microscopic hole in the bottom to allow the stress levels to subside. The bucket can take quite some time to empty, typically seventy-two hours, although it can be much longer. As the dog encounters different stressors, the bucket level rises. If the dog isn’t allowed to recover and decompress, the bucket level will continue to rise until the dog reaches his threshold. The moment the dog can no longer cope is the point at which the dog goes over threshold and the bucket overflows. The dog cannot think clearly at this point, as his sympathetic nervous system has kicked in and he is in fight-or-flight mode.
As mentioned above, a single stressful encounter can take up to 72 hours for them to recover from, and if they are exposed to other stressors in that period, it can result in them feeling constantly stressed, so respite time really is essential.
When we are stressed, sometimes a deep bubble bath, a glass (bucket) of wine and some chocolate (a big slab of it) can help us feel better. For our dogs, some quiet time with something tasty to chew on, some treats to sniff out, or a loaded licki-mat can really help them wind down. Sometimes a break from walks is also beneficial, with time spent at home where they feel safe, enjoying some enrichment, perhaps a bit of scentwork, some play in the garden etc to keep them stimulated and entertained.
Something else to consider is that not all stress is bad stress. Our dogs experience something called eustress, which is "good" stress; in other words, something they find exciting and enjoyable, such as a trip to a secure field, where they can run around like loonies, play chase, and generally let loose. What we need to be aware of here is that this kind of stress raises arousal levels and increases the risk of trigger stacking in the same way that "bad" stress, or distress, does. When we talk about trigger stacking, we tend to only acknowledge negative events, but we need to bear in mind that the fun stuff will also have an impact.
You can read more about the science of stress here: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/the-science-of-stress-part-one
and how to spot the signs of stress here: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/the-science-of-stress-part-two-spotting-the-signs
BUT HE REACTED OUT OF NOWHERE, I JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND IT!
Sometimes it can feel as if our dog has reacted to something completely out of the blue. On your dog walk, a bicycle might pass you at speed, then you meet a friend with their dog, so you let the two have a play together. On the way home, you pass a gate with barking dogs behind it, and a few minutes later, your dog reacts to something fairly innocuous which isn't normally a problem. In this case, arousal levels will have built with each event and, although your dog may seem to have been coping, that small child dragging a noisy toy along behind them may just be too much, and your dog fizzes over like a shaken can of coke. This is trigger stacking at play, or the proverbial straw which broke the camel's back.
This cartoon camel certainly has the right idea!
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