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What is Trigger Stacking in Dogs?

What is trigger stacking in dogs and why is it important to be aware of this phenomenon? Understanding trigger stacking in dogs can ultimately make you a better dog owner, because let's face it: when it comes to being exposed to annoyances and inconveniences of life, we all eventually have a breaking point. As humans, most of us have gone at some time or another through some phase where everything just seemed to go wrong. Even the calmest person on earth may therefore lose it after being exposed to a series of inconveniences that take place one after another.

Like us, dogs can also suffer from the cumulative effects of stress and this can even affect the calmest, well-rounded dogs, the ones that dog owners would never expect them to lash out. Learning more about trigger stacking in dogs can help us better understand the effects it can have on our dogs so we can take steps to better manage their environment and hopefully prevent them from reaching their breaking point.

trigger stacking in dogs

Trigger stacking in dogs

What is Trigger Stacking in Dogs?

Trigger stacking in dogs is often a phenomenon that causes dog owners to make remarks such as "Out of the blue, my dog bithim, I never expected this from my dog!"

Fact is, ALL dogs (yes, even the calmest, friendliest ones!) have a breaking point. Dog trainers call it "bite threshold", which is the point where, when push comes to shove, the dog reaches the point where he will bite.

The presentation of several triggers, presented one after the other (trigger stacking) therefore has a cumulative effect which can lower the dog's bite threshold.

For sake of comparison, imagine the game of Tetris, or for those playing more recent games, other tile-matching video games like Bejeweled orCandy Crush Saga.

If you do not clear enough blocks, gems or candy pieces on time, they will start stacking up and accumulating putting the player under cumulative pressure. Failure to clear them in time leads to the stacked pieces piling up to the point where the player loses and the game ends. In a similar fashion, exposure to several triggers stacking up, can put a dog under pressure until he reaches a point where he loses it (literally!) I often like to use this comparison with my clients.

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"Announcing that nice dogs don't bite and vicious dogs do is like saying that nice people never argue or get angry and vicious people do" ~Jean Donaldson

Many dogs show whale eyes when photographed.

Subtle Signs of Stress

Imagine going through a bad day. You wake up with flu-like symptoms, you want to stay in bed but you must get your kids ready for school. Then, right when you are about to take a nap, the phone rings. It's a debt collector, you forgot to pay a bill. You therefore get dressed and go mail the payment.

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Why is My Dog Constantly Scratching and Biting Himself?

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Then, once back home, you want to take a nap, and a sales man pops up at your door. By the time you go back to bed and you are about to fall asleep, your kids are back from school and it's time to prepare lunch. You warn your husband and kids that you're not really in a good mood so you ask them to please be quiet and understanding.

All the earlier mishaps have certainly stacked up and you are reaching your breaking point.

Dogs can go through similar happenings, but in dogs though the effects of trigger stacking can be trickier to recognize. Unlike people, dogs can't talk to warn you about their growing levels of stress and frustration. Spared from the gift of voice, their only form of communication is through their body language.

Many signs of dog stress are therefore often missed because they can be quite subtle and dog owners may fail to recognize them. On top of that, dog owners may not realize the effect exposure to certain stimuli can have on their dogs and therefore may assume their dogs are coping well with them, when they are not.

"Trigger stacking refers to numerous triggers occurring together and pushing a dog over this threshold in combination when they would not on their own." ~Stephanie Hedges

dog tongue flicks whale eye

Avoiding The "Tetris Game Over" Effect

In order to reduce the chances for trigger stacking in dogs, you will need to get better accustomed with your dog's body language and subtle signs of stress, 2) understand his triggers and 3) get more acquainted with his threshold levels, 4) manage your dog's environment, and 5) get professional help.

Following are some general guidelines to prevent your dog from becoming a victim of the effects of trigger stacking in dogs.

  • Recognize subtle signs of stress such as lip licks, yawning, whale eyes, shedding of hair.  For more on this read " Signs of stress in dogs"
  • Learn more about what triggers stress in your dog and consider that sometimes even what look like fun events such as going to doggy day care or the dog park can have elements of stress. Many dogs can also be stressed by continual exposure to boisterous kids or other pets sharing the household.
  • Learn more about your dog's threshold. How much can he take before getting stressed? Recall past events when your dog acted stressed so that you can take steps in the future to prevent him from reaching his breaking point. Is he bothered by other dogs when they are at a certain distance? Then increase that distance. Does he seem to do fine with kids until they interact with him? Then limit such interactions. Does he dislike when dogs are in his face? Then keep him away from places where dogs are allowed off leash. Manage his environment so that you can better gauge the amount of stress he is exposed to and significantly reduce it.
  •  Play it safe, doing your best to not put your dog into situations he cannot handle. Consider that a dog's threshold can lower considerably when a dog is not feeling well or is victim of cumulative stress.
  • Look for professional help to nip the problem in the bud before reacting defensively becomes your dog's new way of life for dealing with stressful events. Vitally important is to enroll the aid of a dog trainer/behavior consultant specializing in force-free training and behavior modification so that your dog isn't exposed to the negative effects of aversive dog training. 
  •  Keep in mind that when dogs are exposed to stressful events the stress hormones linger for a while and therefore your dog's threshold is often lowered for quite some time. Following a stress reduction program is important.

" It takes a while for the stress hormones involved in preparing the body for flight or fight to dissipate and so repeated exposures to frightening or highly stressful situations mean that the body never gets a chance to return to normal." ~Taryn Blyth


  • Culture Clash: A New Way Of Understanding The Relationship Between Humans And Domestic DogsPaperback– January 19, 1996 by Jean Donaldson, James & Kenneth Publishers (January 19, 1996)
  • Practical Canine Behaviour: For Veterinary Nurses and Technicians, by Stephanie Hedges, CABI Publishing; 1 edition (11 July 2014)
  • Stress and your Dog By Taryn Blyth, DipCABT (OCN UK) retrieved from the web on June 8th, 2016

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