Trigger stacking – managing border collie arousal

Today I did something stupid. It was one of those times when you realise that it’s not the best thing to be doing and you know it might end badly but you choose to do it anyway and just hope! It relates to Flo, my three year old lockdown puppy, who can be anxious, particularly around novelty. She is extremely impulsive and gets easily frustrated, both of which raise arousal.

border collie trigger stacking - flo

We are having some work done in the garden which involves two strangers and a digger. I planned in advance that Flo could go in one of the bedrooms that doesn’t overlook the garden with a long-lasting chew and a frozen kong while the work was being done, and the rest of the time we would walk her away from the house. Her anxiety causes her to bark a lot when she sees someone unfamiliar arriving, and I don’t want her anxiety barking to affect Ozzy and make him over-aroused around strangers as well. Keeping her in the bedroom would keep her arousal low and help her to stay calm.

However, things never go quite to plan and the guys arrived early, while I was out with Ozzy. So, Flo saw the men before she went into the bedroom, which raised her arousal instantly and made it difficult for her to settle.

trigger stacking - managing arousal in border collies
Flo investigating the digger

When the men disappeared, presumably to have lunch, my husband took the dogs out to play in the garden, and I took the opportunity to vacuum the house. Flo hates the vacuum cleaner. It’s one of those things that I should really have helped her get over, but, due to being time-short again, we manage it by one of us taking her out while we vacuum. I know when I started doing it that it was the wrong thing to be doing, but like all of us these days, I’m time-short and just hoped that I’d be finished when the guys came back from lunch.

So, we have a classic case of trigger stacking: Flo’s arousal was already high due to:

1. The arrival of the men earlier today
2. Being confined to a bedroom
3. Me vacuuming

Three triggers, all of which are quite intensive triggers for Flo, and her arousal is likely to have been sky-high.  WHen a dog’s arousal is already high, it takes relatively little to tip them into reacting – as my article “Why is it important to manage arousal in border collies?” explains.

And then the men came back from lunch! My husband was still out in the garden with the dogs. He doesn’t have as much knowledge as I do about dog behaviour and trigger stacking, and allowed all the dogs to run over and greet the men. This fourth big trigger – unfamiliar men just walking into the garden could easily have caused a reaction in Flo. She has never bitten anyone, but has snapped a couple of times, and I’m so lucky that today didn’t end in her biting someone. And then once a dog has bitten someone and see that it causes the person to move away, they learn and it makes it more likely that they will bite again.  And I most certainly shouldn’t have allowed her to be a risk to our visitors.

So although it was fine and Flo coped brilliantly, and didn’t even bark, it could so easily have ended differently, and as a dog behaviourist, I shouldn’t have taken the risk and put her in the situation in which something like that could have happened.

trigger stacking - managing border collie arousal

I just thought it was a really good example of how difficult it can be to manage dogs who are prone to anxiety and frustration, and how much we really need to think about everything, plan in advance and have a back up plan for when things don’t work out as expected!

Never put them in situations in which they might react, like I did with Flo today.  I have learned from today – we never stop learning!

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