I had an online consultation with a student that might resonate with you. She explained that due to the lockdown, some family members had moved into her home, which included two young children. Her dog was the perfect family pet, and she had never had any issues with him.
Then, a few weeks after they had moved in, he had begun to snarl, growl and snap at other dogs.
She couldn't figure out why he'd done this - he had dog friends, and really enjoyed his walks normally. But now, everything was just too much.
So we functionally analysed how his routine had changed, and while there were some other underlying issues relating to dogs, the biggest issue he had was the noise of the children. As they were both under the age of seven, they spent most of the day being loud.
He couldn't cope with it. As such, his anxiety built and built, and was then compounded when dogs he didn't respect his space.
What actually happened then?
This dog was the victim of something called trigger stacking.
Trigger stacking is when a number of different stressors in the environment build up. If we are not careful and there is no time to decompress, this build up can lead to an explosion.
This explosion could be telling a dog off, having a panic attack, or a bite.
These triggers can be massive (for a dog reactive dog it could be another dog in the environment) or small (having a paw accidentally stepped on). For your dog, what is a 'massive' trigger or a 'small' trigger will depend on their genetics, background, training history, medical history and much more.
We experience trigger stacking as well. For example, some days if someone cuts us off in traffic we can ignore it. Other days, we go ballistic.
If we go ballistic, while being cut off might have been the catalyst for the reaction, the real reason is the stress we feel from an argument with a family member, or a work deadline needing to be met. Most 'explosions' aren't caused by the incident, but all the incidents that came before.
We also need to talk about thresholds.
A threshold is barrier between not reacting, and reacting. As more triggers occur in the environment, our dogs get closer and closer to crossing over the barrier and reacting.
When a dog is 'under-threshold', they are currently not reacting to anything in the environment. When they are 'on their threshold', they are close to reacting but aren't quite yet. But one more trigger, and...
Your dog is overthreshold, and they are barking, lunging, snarling etc.
For my student above, the dog was usually under-threshold and friendly with dogs. But, because of a few new triggers, which include:
- More on lead dog walks.
- More dog walks overall (family members all wanted to walk him).
- Less mental stimulation (went to agility twice a week).
- Change in routine (different people feeding him, walked at different times during the day).
- House far noisier than normal (children being loud).
Have a think about your dog and their triggers. What makes them uncomfortable? If your dog is reacting more so than normal, what has changed in the environment? What new triggers are there?
We're here to help if you need us!