So if you’ve spent any time with your dog attached to a 20 foot cotton lead, in a nice little park in Webster Groves, running away from other dogs, you’ve probably heard my “guy walks into a bar” analogy. Yes, it starts like a bad joke that should be followed up with a priest and a rabbi, except it doesn’t really have a punchline.
Seriously though, for those lucky ones who haven’t heard, you might ask what’s the significance? Often times I’ll break out my “guy in a bar” routine to help dog owners identify with how their dog might be feeling when faced with challenging situations and doggy confrontation.
We’ve all had one of those days, right?…
Maybe it’s a Friday morning and you’re headed into work. It should be an easy breezy commute being at the end of the work week, but instead, you hit a major wreck on 270 (or your own nemesis highway) causing you to be 30 minutes late. Setback #1…
Once you get to work, you get settled and immediately get confronted by your boss who asks you to re-run your TPS report, which will take half the day, which you had already turned in yesterday – ahead of schedule. Setback #2…
Feeling annoyed that you have to back-track, you procrastinate on the request and instead check your bank balance online since it’s payday. You’re expecting your normal check amount, but you also logged some beaucoup overtime last week. What’s this? Not only is your OT not in your account, but your check is for about half of what you had expected! Setback #3…
You’re already down 30 minutes of your lunch hour because you were late to work, and now you have to take the other 30 minutes of your lunch to work out your paycheck with HR. Before you know it, it’s too late to hit the hall vending machine and you’ve crossed over to “hangry” territory. Setback #4…
The end of the day has to be better, or so you think
So you make it through the workday and manage to hit the McD’s (Setback #4.5 = poor nutritional choices) before fighting the same ridiculous traffic on the way home as you had on the way to work. Setback#5… You’ve already decided that you need a drink after work, so you stop at the local watering hole on the way home. You’ve made it this far, so it can only get better from here, right?
You get a beer and start heading towards the dart boards to release some frustration on it. But then on your way there, a gruff-looking bar-goer gives you the side-eye… for seemingly no reason. And that’s it, you lose your temper, punch the guy in eye, cut your hand on your beer bottle and get thrown out of the bar. Setbacks #6, #7 and #8…
Just like Trigger Stacking in dogs
What does this have to do with dogs? Trigger-stacking, my friends… Trigger stacking is when too many stimuli that the dog is sensitive to occur in a short period of time (see illustration). When we think that our dog’s outbursts towards other dogs, people or other triggers seem “out of the blue,” we might stop to think again. What else could have your dog perceived as being wronged in the course leading up to his outburst? Did he go to the groomer today, did he step on the hot asphalt and now his paw pad is tender, and then have a run-in with the scary vacuum monster just before he went for his walk, where he came face-to-face with his worst big brown fuzzy adversary?
More importantly, was there something we could have done to interrupt the trigger stacking cycle before it led to a barking, lunging, snarling, mortifying outburst? Did your dog give any signs ahead of time that this day might not end well for him? Was there any lip-licking, head turning, sniffing, yawning, shaking off, tail tucking leading up to the outburst?
Making better choices
Lastly, how can we teach our dog to make better choices other than confronting his triggers? Can we empower our dog to “take the [metaphorical] high road,” put his head down and go straight to the dart board to decompress in a more appropriate way? For me, I prefer to teach dogs to avoid confrontational situations by choosing to turn away for the prospect of a chicken reward, or run in the opposite direction to sniff a tree, or play a game of tug.
One thing to mention is that we can’t wait for a situation to occur to start training more appropriate behavior. Practicing something like an Emergency U-Turn (coined by Patricia McConnell) or “a fast pivot and cheerful retreat,” should be practiced ahead of time and often. Familiarize yourself with Fear/Anxious/Stressed Signals (illustrated by Lili Chin) and learn to read your dog’s body language.
If you need help teaching your fearful, aggressive or leash reactive dog more appropriate behavior, please don’t hesitate to contact The Persuaded Pooch, or another a qualified dog trainer or certified behaviorist.
(And if you really did want to hear a joke about a guy in a bar, well… here you go!)
Images courtesy of BarkPost.com