You’re making that dreaded walk from your doctor’s waiting room toward the exam room, hoping against all hope to bypass the scale in the hallway. Have you ever refused to jump on? Many people hate to be weighed at all, let alone outside the privacy of their own bathroom.
What if, upon refusal, you suddenly were surrounded by three or four nurses you’d never met before? What if they tried to trick you, or even force you, onto the scale? Maybe you don’t mind the scale but are afraid of doctors and needles. What if your doctor tied you down, or had others hold you down, while she examined you and gave a series of injections?
You’re enjoying a casual weekend walk in the park with your family, but these odd things keep happening: Strangers running up to your kids and spouse, stroking their heads, kissing their noses, and sometimes, as they finally prepare to leave, smacking your kids and spouse on the ribs or rumps as some sort of bizarre goodbye! You try to stop these odd strangers on-approach, but they keep chanting things like “It’s OK — I’m a family person; families love me!” When your son spits on one of them, she calls him horrible names. When your little daughter bites one of them for smacking her, he actually calls the police.
These scenarios are bad enough on their own, but remember nothing happens in a vacuum. You probably arrived at that doctor appointment having already experienced one or more recent stressors that are still affecting your cortisol levels. You likely have not burned off all the stress of the week when you are bombarded by the packs of ‘family people’ on your weekend walk. You may also be experiencing more than one stressor currently. When we react to a stressor in what seems a surprising or extreme way, our response may be a reaction to all the recent stressors, where the stressor on top of the pile pushed us past our ability to tolerate any further stress at that time. The surrounded patient at the scale tells off the circle of nurses. The held down patient, breaking free, accidentally breaks someone’s nose. Trying to protect your family during weekend walk time, you spray someone with mace and are arrested or sued, or both.
If you have dogs, you may recognize the above as analogies. This piling up of our particular stressors is similar to what is known as “trigger stacking” in the animal behavior world. Some of the most common triggers — that is, stressors — for many dogs are aversive handling, being kissed, hugged, stood over, or head-handled, baths, nail trims, grooming, vet visits, strange people, strange dogs, children, cyclists, skateboarders, men with hats/beards, fireworks, storms, confinement, sudden/loud noise.
Most people know at least one of their dog’s triggers. But here’s something people may not know: Trigger stacking can lead even the most meek, passive dog to bite. Therefore, to protect your beloved dog from the potentially life-ending consequence of a bite, protect your dog from trigger stacking. Know all your dog’s stressors, learn to recognize when those stressors are in play, and be ready to protect your dog from the piling on of stressors. One trigger may be a tolerable level of stress for some dogs; the stress level of two triggers may be tolerable but very uncomfortable, or it may be an intolerable level depending on the dog; three triggers may be the place before which many people hold up a big red STOP sign. Remember, an over-stressed dog cannot respond normally to training cues, so expectations must be adjusted.
I find myself sometimes reminding other professionals as well, in the gentlest way I can muster at the time. Unfortunately, reminders don’t always land so gently, because we don’t always think to readdress these concerns in time. I do my very best, but I’m not perfect.
Here’s my bottom line (you may use as yours if applicable): My dogs are not biters and have never bitten. But the reaction of any animal pushed past its biochemical ability to cope is the responsibility of those who know better but push anyway.
Rain Jordan, CBCC-KA, KPA CTP, is a certified canine behavior and training professional. Visit her at www.expertcanine.com.