What does all of this have to do with my dog?

Stressors/ Triggers in Dogs

Context has everything to do with the way dogs experience stress. They experience the mechanics of stress in much the same way as we do. Dogs’ stressors vary for every dog; every dog will cope differently with any particular stressor. Susceptibility and reaction to stressors are normally influenced by genetics, early and continued socialization experiences, and real or perceived traumatic events.

Appropriate, early and continued socialization plays one of the most important roles in the the way animals cope with new situations, people, and other dogs; dogs should start the socialization process as soon as possible. If the puppy comes to you from a breeder, ideally the breeder will be skilled with the socialization needs of dogs and they will start the process. You should make arrangements with a local trainer prior to when the puppy comes home, and you should enroll in puppy socialization classes or sessions, timed to when the puppy comes home.

There are obvious triggers that many dog owners are painfully aware of, such as strange people, unknown dogs, vet visits, restraint, shock collars or other aversive tools, and inappropriate handling. More subtle triggers include too much tension on the leash, leash jerks, speaking too loudly, tone of voice, speaking too fast, anxiety level of the owner, directly approaching the animal from the front, reaching over, changes in the home such as re-homing or construction, unfamiliar environment, sudden movements or being put “on the spot.” (stage fright) Some dogs have oddball stressors. I have seen issues with sunglasses, beards, hats and heavy coats. My American Eskimo hates snow. He will look out the window and give slow, quiet, concerned barks, at the first snow of the year.

Escalation

Have you ever heard someone use the terms “I’m at the end of my rope” or “If one more thing happens, he’s going to snap”? Individual stressors do not live in a vacuum, they build upon each other and stack. This is a common occurrence  in a disaster area, or following a traumatic event, such as a severe car accident or after a family experiences a death. These situations make people raw. Stress in dogs builds in the same manner, making it possible for even the friendliest dogs to bite, if the circumstances are right.

Luckily, most dogs give off signals during this escalation, either to calm the person, place or thing, calm themselves, or create distance. We will talk about these calming signals in our next installment. During this build-up is where conflicted and displaced behaviors arise, such as spinning, excessive licking, or even eating gravel and snow.

Threshold

Threshold is the breaking point, plain and simple. This is the point where a bite occurs, or a lunge and frantic barking at the end of the leash. Each dog is different, and has different tolerance levels as to how much they can handle, and the degree and type of reaction they will have, once they go over.

A very simplified explanation of threshold is a scale between 1 and 100. Each trigger has a value assigned to it, based on the animal’s tolerance to that trigger. Once the animal hits 100, they pass the threshold. At this point, they escalate the communication from whispering or talking to screaming and hitting. This often works for the animal, because many dog owners or strangers do not hear the dog until they are screaming. This allows the dog to practice the behavior, communicating that it is just best to immediately jump to 100, because the lower-level behavior does not work.

The situation is worsened for the dog whose owners use aversive corrective measures. Giving corrections before the animal reaches threshold often puts the animals over, and can potentially have the animal associate the correction with the calming signal, thus masking communication. Also, the animal can potentially associate the correction with the stressor, intensifying the threat level of that person, animal or object.

Flooding

Flooding is a form of psychotherapy developed in 1967 by Thomas Stampfl, to treat irrational fears, anxieties and phobias in humans. It has since been adapted as a quick fix with dogs. It is acknowledged, within psychology literature, that flooding is faster than systematic desensitization, yet more traumatic and less efficient. In its human form, flooding completely immerses the subject in their fear, while having them practice relaxation techniques. These exercises are equivalent to having a subject with arachnophobia locked in a room infested with spiders. The goal is to take the subjects so far over threshold while practicing these relaxation exercises, they begin to recognize the fear as irrational fear, and associate them with the relaxation. With human subjects, they provide fully informed consent, are aware of what is expected of them, and what they will be enduring.

With animals, this technique has been re-popularized by trainers such as Cesar Millan, as a quick fix that plays well for television without concern for the long- term of the animal’s behavioral change, or possible behavioral repercussions. Without proper guidance or experience, flooding is a very easy trap to fall into for dog owners and trainers, in an attempt to force the animal into overcoming its fears.

The issue with flooding is that animals are unable to provide informed consent, and are unaware of what is happening to them. They are unaware of the goals of the therapy, or the reason they are intentionally being forced into conflict and not being allowed to escape.

The goal of systematic desensitization is to always keep the animal under threshold, and in a state where they are able to learn, rather than feeling the need to react. This is far more humane and less traumatizing, safer for both the animal and human, and has less potential for negative results. Flooding animals is just a blunt force battle of wills; it is dangerous for both the animal and the humans involved with training the animal. 99.99% of the time there are other, more humane methods that are safer and more reliable.

Links of interest:

Stress, Fear, and the Kyle Dyer Bite Incident

While there are no guarantees that Max would not have bitten Kyle Dyer if he had not just experienced a near drowning, the trauma of that event was just one of the many stressors that Max experienced in a short period of time. Increasing the time between Max falling through the ice and the TV appearance could have potentially reduced the chances of the bite occurring. The near drowning was just a foundation that reduced the threshold buffer.

Along with this reduced buffer, he was thrown into a completely alien environment with large cameras, cords everywhere, bright lights, and strange smells, people in heavy make-up, talking loud and fast. He was in the studio for 45 minutes, meeting person after person, whom I could only assume greeted him in in a similar fashion as seen on TV. Feeding into his anxiety, his owner was holding his leash tight, adding to the stress, by giving him consistent leash pulls.

This bite was set in motion long before Max crashed through the ice. We unfortunately live in a society where many people think, “My dog is a good dog, (he/she) could never do that”. Normally it is only after an incident and self help measures don’t work that people seek the help of a professional. There are  approximately 4.5 million dog bites in the US a year.  34 people die, 885,000 people seek medical attention, and 31,000 people needed reconstructive surgery as a result of those bites. Looking at behavior, we should all take a proactive approach rather than reactive.

The Denver metro area is very fortunate; I know of a dozen quality trainers spread across the Denver Metro area, and about a hundred more trainers that I am acquainted with only through their web sites. This situation might have been prevented with the help of a good puppy trainer/ socializer, and classes with the dog as an adult. Through working with a professional, the owner would have learned how to be a more effective advocate for his animal, and been aware of many of the red flags and warning signs that were present. Those classes would have cost pennies in comparison to the lifetime costs of owning a large dog, especially if that large dog bites someone, and is potentially determined to be a dangerous dog.

My next installment will be on body language and calming signals.