When too much is too much

I mentioned in a previous article how adventurous Spencer is getting. So our walks are not only in a greater variety of places, but we we don’t always have to go at times when no one else is out. Nonetheless, there are limits to what Spencer can handle, and they don’t always seem predictable. One of the many challenges of reactive dogs is that they may seem OK with a trigger one day and then react to it the next. At first glance, this seems to be totally unpredictable. But as you gain knowledge and observational skill, you can usual work out that what is really going on is a case of “trigger stacking.”

In a nutshell, “trigger stacking” means that dogs don’t deal with the stimuli around them in isolation. Rather, they have to cope with the sum of the stimuli they are exposed to at any time.This makes sense, and we’re not really any different. Some of you may remember the “Calgon, Take Me Away” commercial from the 1970s that makes this point.

Here’s a great illustration from Grisha Stewart’s “Behavior Adjustment Training” book that explains it in dog terms.

Diagram explaining trigger stacking in reactive dogsThis morning was the perfect example. At one point in time, we arrived at a busy intersection. Just as we got to the corner, a man came around the corner. I asked Spencer to move to the left and then the right to navigate around the guy, and he handled it perfectly. We then waited at the crosswalk and crossed the street, despite all the cars and a nearby bike.  

A bit further on, Spencer was sniffing the sidewalk at the edge of a narrow street. A man came jogging up the middle of the street. I called Spencer’s attention to the guy. He barely looked up to acknowledge the guy coming at him and then kept sniffing. 

We then arrived at another major intersection. There’s a lot going on here, but we had navigated it in the past, so I wasn’t too worried, especially since the summer lull means that traffic is lighter. We crossed from the sidewalk to a first traffic island with no problem. Some cars passed us and we advanced to the next traffic island. Many more cars and a bus passed right in front of us. 

At this point, I noticed a young man standing straight across from us. I realized that I had failed to consider that several people getting off the bus that had just gone by were likely to want to come towards us to reach the stop of another bus line that was just behind us. Still, we had an opening to our right, and I thought I could convince Spencer to let the people pass on our left as we moved right towards the sidewalk we wanted to go up. 

I didn’t count on the guy crossing against the light and coming directly towards us at a brisk pace. I had not yet had time to let Spencer know I was aware of this guy and that we would be moving around him when he came straight at us, wearing earphones and therefore totally oblivious to any attempts I might make to communicate with him. Spencer barked and lunged. The kid kept going, seeming unfazed by Spencer’s reaction.

Interestingly, Spencer calmed back down immediately, and I had no problem taking the intended path, despite some other people waiting on the opposite sidewalk (and well to our left, because they were clearly afraid of Spencer).The rest of the walk was uneventful.

So from a trigger-stacking perspective, the equation of our current progress looks like this:

  • Busy intersection = OK
  • Guy coming towards when Kristen is clearly in control of the situation = OK
  • Busy intersection + guy coming towards us + doubt about whether Kristen knows this is happening = reaction
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