Understanding Trigger Stacking For Behavioural Wellness in Dogs

Why is trigger stacking important?

Trigger stacking is a really important for any dog owner to understand. It can explain why your dog may want to do some things sometimes, and not at others; why they may be grumpier about something at specific times; why they may react to something that they are normally fine with, or why a more excessive reaction occurs than what you were expecting. 

What are we stacking?
Trigger stacking doesn’t just apply to the idea of a trigger that your dog may react to. It refers to any stress that your dog may feel. Now stress in this context means anything that takes your dog away from their internal baseline. For the science nerds among you, homeostasis. You need not be a science nerd to understand this though. I’m simply referring to anything that takes your dog’s internal state, i.e. hormone levels and other chemistry (fear not, I’m allergic to chemistry too so we won’t be talking about too much of it!) away from what is a baseline for them. A baseline is specific to each individual organism. Some of us have a more naturally diluted blood, i.e. lots of water in the blood. Some of us need only a tiny amount of a hormone to trigger a change, others may need significantly more of that hormone to create the same change. 

Stress refers to anything that takes your dog away from this baseline. Now this can be things that cause them worry, such as their worst fear. Or it could be things that cause them physical comfort and physically take us away from baseline. Needing a drink of water is a stressor, but not as strongly as dehydration is a stressor. 

Stress gets a bit of a bad reputation but things that we love doing, things that are exciting also cause us ‘stress’. I love lifting weights but it causes my body to leave its baseline. Sometimes the physical pain I’m left in after a particular set of vile deadlifts cause me stress the next day when I’m faced with a flight of stairs. For my dogs, the things they love take their bodies away from baseline too. Pumba adores water, to the point that he would make himself ill. I have no doubt that when he is obsessively drinking water from a paddling pool that he is taking his body away from baseline. Certainly his kidneys have to work harder to process all of that water. When he’s grunting in excitement as we approach the beach so he can fetch toys in and out of the water, his body is far from that baseline he is in when he’s chilling on the sofa at home. Sonic adores seeing people and other dogs but requires a lot of sleep afterwards to recover and get herself back to baseline. These exciting experiences lead to trigger stacking as much as the ‘bad’ experiences. 

What is trigger stacking?
Trigger stacking is the process where stress hormones accumulate in your dog’s body. These stress hormones are accumulated from both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ experiences that take your dog’s body away from baseline. 
The stress hormones involved do not disappear from your dog’s bloodstream instantly. The evidence at the moment for how long this takes currently range from three hours to three days. 
Why is trigger stacking important?
Trigger stacking is important because it gives us an explanation as to why dogs react in ways we don’t expect to stressful situations. Again, here by stressful situations I mean situations that take your dog away from baseline. It also gives us an idea of our dog’s tolerance levels and when we may be reaching the limit of what our dogs can tolerate. 
If you have a dog with any form of behavioural problem, trigger stacking helps to explain why this problem may worsen at some times and not others. 
Trigger stacking is so important if you own a puppy. Puppies are constantly being bombarded with stressful experiences that they have no previous learning history to shortcut what is important and what isn’t. Picture yourself in whatever class you had at school that you struggled most with and having someone try to explain the most complex concepts from that class without first teaching you the basics. That’s what puppies experience every time they’re awake. Their brains are wired to accept this wherever possible but they are still easily trigger stacked. If you own a puppy you’re probably familiar with their behaviour later in the day where it seems that they’ve just hit their limit for the day. This is why!
How does this relate to Functional Foundations? 
All of the Functional Foundations aim to increase a dog’s tolerance to stress and reduce overall stress in order to avoid trigger stacking. If you know your dog has experienced a lot of stress then the Functional Foundations are a great thing to use to get your dog back to baseline as quickly as possible. 
Don’t forget the humans too!
All of the above applies to humans too! Trigger stacking happens to us as well and it’s important to be aware of to the benefit of all of our relationships, especially those with our dogs!

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