Weight Limit Ahead: Dogs and Trigger Stacking



Transitions are hard for some dogs. Over the years we've made a lot of progress with Bruce's fear of unfamiliar men, and these days you'd never know he used to have raging separation anxiety. But we're in the middle of a move, have been packing for weeks, and it's showing on our sensitive boy.

We first noticed something was different two weeks ago when he chewed up the emergency brake handle while waiting for us in the car—his go-to stress behavior from years ago. A few days later, alone in the house, he scratched up several doors trying to open them—another stress behavior relic. 

Then today, the perfect storm. We needed plumbing help, and it came in the form of a large bearded guy with a loud jovial voice, wearing a hat. Loving this plumber would be above Bruce's pay grade on even the best of days, so normally we'd have Bruce wait out of sight with a special frozen Kong until the danger has passed. Not so fast, said Bruce. You see, that would entail being alone. We limped through the plumber's visit, and by the end Bruce was frantic, wide-eyed, panting heavily and whimpering softly to himself. He had no interest in the Kong filled with tuna, egg and kibble. You clocked that last bit, right? A lab who's not eating. That's some serious stress.

It reminds me of a brilliant blog post explaining trigger stacking ("trigger" being something a dog is afraid of or dislikes), with this powerful graphic.

This graphic is used with the permission of the creator, Sarah Pennington of Yaletown Dog Training. For more of Sarah's user-friendly and insightful dog training advice and graphics, visit her blog at www.yaletowndogtraining.com. 

Bruce's version: his house in disarray + big hairy plumber + being alone = way over his stress "weight limit"

I won't pretend that I didn't despair for a moment this morning. It's heartbreaking knowing a dog you love is suffering, and trying to come up with a safe place for a frantic 70-pound dog ad hoc is stressful. But Bruce needed me to have my wits about me so I faked it with a bunch of happy talk, a mad scramble to see if there was something he would eat, and silent promises for long walks later. 

But in broad strokes, understanding triggers and stress thresholds helps me remember that Bruce's world is not crumbling and all is not lost. We are not back at square one; all our hard work will still pay off. (If you have a fearful or anxious dog, you feel me on the importance of morale, right?!) It's simply that in this context of moving, we've learned that Bruce is near his limit for stress. We'll plan ahead better, do our best to keep him feeling safe these next several weeks while the transition is in full swing, then get him back on track once we're settled. It's time for the kid gloves.

Here's Bruce enjoying his Kong after the plumber was gone. It's OK, sweet boy. We got your back.

Bruce with Kong