Stress, thresholds, and trigger stacking.
Our reactive dogs experience high levels of stress when they are exposed to their trigger or triggers. A trigger is something which causes our dog to react, e.g. another dog, jogger, cyclist, horse, car etc. For some owners, they have been battling with their dog’s reactive behaviour for years, and it has always been there. For others, a dog may have suddenly “unpredictably” reacted. The common saying from shocked owners at their dog’s unusual behaviour is something along the line of “he has never done that before”.
The owner is left confused about their dog’s sudden reactive behaviour. There could be many reasons why in that situation, the dog felt he needed to react as opposed to dismissing the situation as he usually does. Health problems, sudden pain, diet discomfort medication can all cause sudden changes in behaviour. Here though I am talking to you about the system of trigger stacking resulting in a dog having a reactive episode from a behaviour standpoint for dogs that are nervous, anxious, or fearful.
To help you understand I will use a human example, let us look at a typical workday morning. Your alarm does not go off to wake you for work (trigger one), You burn your toast (trigger two), You can’t find your car keys (trigger three), your car does not start straight away (trigger four), you get stuck in a traffic jam on your way to work and your already twenty minutes late! (trigger five), you get into the office, and the first thing you are greeted with is your boss moaning at you for not only being late but the fact that your last piece of work you submitted was not up to scratch!!!! That is, it! You lose it, scream, and shout at your boss and stomp out of the office! That is trigger stacking. For every one person and every dog, the number of triggers it takes before losing it vary. For some two triggers might be enough for others, it may take five or six triggers.
Every time your dog has a reactive episode, they undergo a huge amount of stress. This has a huge effect on the dog, physically and emotionally. If your dog has reactive episodes every day, this is building on their long-term stress.
When a dog is exposed to high levels of stress regularly, it causes the synapse to work at a fast rate and does not get the opportunity to slow down or even go into reverse. The synapse is responsible for speeding up or slowing down of neurotransmitters released in the brain. During periods of high stress, the synapse speeds up, when the trigger is gone. The synapse slows down and goes into reverse, which then has a calming effect on the dog. This is not able to happen if the dog is under prolonged stress.
But that is not all!
During a stressful episode or episodes, a dog’s autonomic system kicks into action, getting the body ready for a fight, flight or freeze response. Continued stress means the dog's brain is constantly releasing neurotransmitters causing the synapse to work extra hard, which can have adverse effects on the dog’s body.
The following changes can occur within the dog’s body:
The liver is altered and provides glucose to the bloodstream to provide extra energy for the flight response.
Adrenaline production increases – gearing them up for a fight response.
During stress, more pressure is placed upon the arteries as they are pumping more blood around the body.
Dilation of pupils - the body is hyper-vigilant and getting ready for action.
Redistribution of regional flow throughout stress and exercise – blood taken away from the stomach and pumped into the muscles to allow for a sprint reaction
Dilated bronchioles allow for increased lung capacity – more oxygen can be supplied when undergoing a flight response.
Dogs under stress may also be affected by increased heart rate, and digestive system shut down, the release of anal glands, involuntary loss of control of bladder and bowel movement.
What about emotional changes?
Increased emotions because of hormone change have a direct effect on the dog’s behaviour when under stress. During stressful episodes and in particular long-term stress exposure, the following hormones can change.
Adrenaline: this is the hormone which gets the body ready for the “flight” response, it increases the heart rate, blood pressure, dilation of bronchial tubes and pupils. These results in the dog requiring more oxygen which makes him pant more, the release of adrenaline increases stress hormone release such as cortisol.
Cortisol: the release of cortisol increases glucose, fatty acids and amino acids within the blood and provides the cells of the dog’s body with extra energy ready for action.
Aldosterone: in its normal form aldosterone helps to regulate blood pressure and the function of the dog's water balance. However, when set out of balance (which happens when the dog is under constant stress), it can be linked to causing heart and kidney disease.
Testosterone: this is the well-known sex hormone which helps build up muscle and strength and impacts a dog’s behaviour. This hormone is connected with more intense readiness to respond to threats which often results in aggression.
When these hormones are set off balance, it has a huge effect on our dog behaviour, causing mood swings, behaviour changes, low tolerance levels, heightened aggression and so on. This is why a huge part of the work I do with reactive dog’s tackles getting their emotional state back on track—emotions fuel behaviour.
Thanks for reading!