Pull the Trigger: why management matters
Scentventure Compass Point: Partnership
Ok, we’re going to get a little bit geeky now but bear with us. We’re taking a quick look at what’s going on in your dog’s brain and body that’s driving their stressful behaviour – because once you know what’s going on, you’ll know how to avoid it.
The aim of Base Camp is to lower overall stress levels so your dog becomes calmer overall and easier to train when we come to tackle the big problems. Knowledge is power and the more you know, the more control you have over your dog’s behaviour. The information in this lesson will help you do that and we’ve boiled it down to the 6 most essential concepts.
Wait – my dog isn’t stressed, they’re just excited!
You might be thinking, ‘My dog is 100mph; they’re just overexcited, not stressed.’ It’s important to know that excitement is a form of stress and the same stress chemistry will be released from the brain into the body whether your dog is fearful or overexcited.
Physical and psychological stress pathways in the brain are the same. Psychological stress is the perception of stimuli. Stimuli is exciting or scary things. We also use the term ‘trigger’ in this course.
Common causes of canine stress are fear and overexcitement or over stimulation:
- FEAR – Experiences where dog feels threatened e.g. a scary dog
- OVER EXCITEMENT / OVER STIMULATION – Fast exercise patterns e.g. chasing balls, running next to owner.
Any type of stress makes dogs more prone to frustration and reactivity and prevents training being fully effective.
#1 Practice makes permanent
The more we practice something, the better we get. Practice makes perfect. If we practice less, our ability and tendency to repeat a behaviour lessens. It isn’t lost; if we return to that behaviour in the future we relearn it much more quickly than if we were starting afresh – that’s why we say ‘practice makes permanent; what has been learned will always be there).
This is because memories form physical synapses, like pathways, in the brain. If we continue sending electricity down the same pathways by repeating a behaviour, the pathways become physically stronger and much easier to travel; like a wide, straight motorway compared to the winding, pot-holed country lane of a behaviour we haven’t practiced for some time.
What does this mean for training? Avoid putting your dog into situations where they can practice the unwanted behaviour and set them up for success by consistently practicing the desired alternative. This makes the ‘calm behaviour’ pathway the one most travelled (their go-to response) and allows the ‘stressful behaviour’ pathways to weaken.
Don’t worry, we give you plenty of ideas for desired alternatives as we go, but it’s just important to understand the concept of ‘practice makes permanent’ for now.
#2 Stress Heads
Stress is a chemical response that happens in the body, triggered by the brain perceiving a ‘threat’ in the environment. ‘Perceive’ is a key word here; you may know that something is not a threat but your does does not. Their brain communicates to their body that there is a threat to their safety via a reflex reaction which they cannot control.
Chemicals released by the adrenal glands cause changes to the body; heart rate increases, breathing rate increases, blood pressure rises. The goal is to prepare the body for a ‘fight or flight’ type response if necessary. Essentially stress is a mechanism for survival.
On a practical level it’s important to know that the release of this stress chemistry happens incredibly quickly as they need to be able to respond in that instant of threat perception. Dissipation of those stress chemicals from the bloodstream is a much slower process so once your dog has had a reaction, remove them from the situation as quickly as possible, help them relax and avoid new stressors. Again, this is what we help you with on this course but for now, it’s just important to be aware of how stress works.
#3 The Four Fs
What’s the problem? Is there a problem?
To answer that question we need to think about how dogs behave when stressed.
Stress behaviours in dogs are categorised by the Four Fs:
- Fiddle About/Fool Around/Flirt/Fidget – commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted
Fight and Flight are the more regularly recognised and understood categories, often described as ‘aggressive’ or ‘fearful’ responses, respectively. A dog snapping at the vet trying to examine him is in fight-mode. A dog trying to slip out of the harness and make a quick dash for the door is in flight-mode. It’s really quite clear that these dogs aren’t enjoying their veterinary experience.
Things get more complex with Freeze. This looks like a sustained moment of absolute stillness, often with fearful body language such as ‘whale eye’ (where you see the whites of a dog’s eye). Sometimes it transitions directly into a Fight response if the stressor isn’t removed.
Finally, the F with many names is commonly misunderstood. It is typically an inappropriate level of excitability, playfulness, affection or appeasement. It looks chaotic and high-energy; jumping up, vocalisation, rushing to greet people/other pets, excessive licking and rushing around to investigate items or smells. Akin to ‘nervous laughter’ in humans, it is a displacement behaviour and, whilst the dog isn’t trying to run away or defend their space, they are stressed by their experience and not coping well.
#4 Trigger Stacking
That slow dissipation of stress chemicals from the bloodstream can result in a phenomenon called ‘trigger-stacking’. Essentially, as a series of triggers are encountered over a short period of time, the stress chemicals in the bloodstream can accumulate; like an overflowing bath being filled faster than the plughole can drain. That point of ‘overflow’ is what we call ‘threshold’ and is the point at which we see extreme ‘fight or flight’ type reactions from our dogs.
With this in mind, we can see why reactions to triggers may sometimes seem quite ‘random’ or ‘over the top’. The intensity of your dog’s reaction is dependent on how stressed they are already when they encounter the trigger; they may happily walk past a cat one day but may completely lose their mind the next day because that day the water at the groomers was a bit too hot, there were two different couriers delivering parcels at the door, the neighbour made a really loud noise slamming the car door and the toddler stood on their tail whilst they were sleeping. It’s easy to see how everyday stressors build up. From a practical point of view, if you think your dog is trigger stacking, avoid any new triggers.
#5 Long-term stress
For dogs who encounter triggers at home or on walks… or both, those regular, often daily, spikes in stress chemistry can start to cause a longer term problem as they rarely get a chance to return back to baseline levels (i.e. their stress levels are frequently elevated and those levels don’t get chance to return to neutral). Exposure to the primary stress hormone, Cortisol, long-term begins to affect how the brain functions. Cortisol inhibits Serotonin, the ‘feel-good hormone’ responsible for our dog’s feeling of safety and confidence. Serotonin is also key in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain responsible for decision-making. We want our dogs to be able to think for themselves and make good decisions (e.g. ‘Ok, there’s a threat but I don’t actually need to react to it’). With reduced Serotonin levels, stressed dogs are not able to put the brakes on those unconscious reflex ‘fight or flight’ reactions and choose calmer, positive behaviours instead.
That’s why we spend time at the start of the behaviour modification journey reducing our dogs’ overall stress levels. A stressed brain and body won’t learn all of the new training we have in store as effectively as when your dog is calmer.
So where does management fit in? Management allows us to limit or entirely remove our dogs exposure to triggers in order to:
- Stop them practicing undesirable pathways and allow that behaviour to weaken
- Allow them to decompress so stress hormones in the bloodstream can reduce to a baseline levels
- Encourage their low Serotonin levels to recover, boosting their confidence, feeling of safety and ability to make good decisions; all of which is beneficial to their ability to learn new training.
Identify your dog’s triggers and think about how to give them a break from exposure to as many triggers as possible. Try not to focus solely on the most problematic triggers; there are likely other triggers which are contributing to their trigger-stacking and may be easily removed with simple management solutions. Reach out to your Scentventure community for advice on management solutions!
This process is key to your long term success in resolving those behaviour challenges.