Trigger Stacking

Trigger Stacking and the Reactive Dog.

If you have a dog who is fearful, reactive, or aggressive; or if you have a dog who is overly aroused and easily excited, understanding trigger stacking can help.

Trigger stacking is when a dog experiences multiple stressful or scary situations in a short time. All these experiences build adrenaline. Each stressful experience builds on the previous one, and normal responses begin to escalate.

What does it look like?

The resulting behaviour can be barking and lunging, pulling on leash, rough play, jumping up, excessive barking, chasing, nipping or mouthing, noise sensitivity, startling easily, or even resource guarding.  

The effects of trigger stacking can last for days if your dog doesn’t get enough down time between triggers. Dogs who are reacting daily can’t respond normally to anything because they never have a chance to get rid of the effects of all that adrenaline.

What can you do?

1. Shorten or change your walks.

Exercising your dog for hours or doing fast or repetitive exercise like running or biking builds adrenaline. Shortening walks or focusing on sniffing and just ambling about in quieter areas can make a big difference.


2. Keep fetch games short and infrequent.

People often seek to tire dogs out in response to unwanted behaviour, but arousing activities like fetch can have the opposite effect.


3. Teach your dog to relax.

When people get dogs, they’re often focused on training and exercising their dogs, but often forget to teach their dogs to settle, hang out and just relax.


4. Mental Exercise.

Perhaps the most effective way to lessen the effects of trigger stacking is to increase your dog’s mental exercise. Mental exercise involves engaging your dog’s brain. The following activities are easy and effective ways to do this:

Positive training.
Teaching your dog obedience, manners, tricks or sports using positive training methods is mentally challenging. Positive training involves capturing and shaping behaviour which means your dog is thinking their way through each step. Learning something new in this way is fun, mentally tiring and helps build confidence, too.

For dogs, interpreting what they smell, where it’s coming from and isolating one smell among many takes a lot of focused thought. Activities like tracking, nose work, object discrimination or even just simple “find it” games in your house or yard can be challenging and fun for your dog and tires them out in a way physical exercise just can’t.  

Treat dispensing toys.
Treat dispensing toys and puzzle solving games are probably the easiest thing you can do every day to give your dog enriching and mentally challenging activities. You can buy the toys in any pet store, or you can come up with your own games like treat tosses in your yard or hiding treats in boxes or twisted up in old towels.

Even if you have the perfect dog or a new puppy, being aware of trigger stacking can help you prevent future behaviour issues. Give your dog lots of opportunities to rest, relax, and follow physical activities with mental ones every day to help your dog maintain a good mental balance.