“I love this term, triggering, how it makes it sound like we’re all packed tight with emotional gunpowder and coiled, ever ready to misfire.” – Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance
The word “trigger” is a useful one when coaching humans in dog training. It signifies when something will launch a dog into from being “I’m ok” to “I’m not ok.” Fight-flight-freeze reactions take over, manifesting themselves in behavior that can be mischaracterized as naughty but are actually symptoms of a dog’s internal state.
Recently, I came across the above quote while re-reading an essay in Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright. While not about dog training, the sentence gave me pause. I’ve been thinking about when I use the term “trigger,” and whether its frequency in my vocabulary is getting in the way of what I want to communicate to people about training.
Dogs do experience triggers. They hear a car backfire. They see a skateboarder. Or, in the case of one of my recent private clients, the dog encounters something fairly specific, in her case elderly people doing tai chi in a nearby park. To be ignorant the existence of triggers to a dog’s fight-flight-freeze reactions is to set a dog up for a fearful, reactive existence.
However, it’s also important to remember that just because a dog has triggers does not mean that dog is unusual, dangerous, or somehow abnormal. Many dogs who are triggered by a stimulus are normal, healthy animals. In many cases, it’s our responsibility as humans to understand how to approach and communicate with a dog.
Once, someone asked me, “What’s the best way to approach a dog with a muzzle?” My response was, “The same way a person should approach any dog in public: With respect to that dog’s body language, space, and instructions from its human.” Although it can hurt our egos, many dogs don’t want to be approached by strangers. They’d rather come up and sniff a new person on their own time, without worrying about reaching hands, forced handling, or prolonged stares. A dog doesn’t have to wear a muzzle to experience stranger danger, and many humans unknowingly expose their dogs to this type of stress all the time on walks. Nor are these dogs abnormal. Humans simply fumble a bit when it comes to new interactions with dogs.
Another time, a training client asked me what to do about her dog who didn’t want to interact with her friends when she held large parties at her house. My response was perhaps not what she expected. Instead of training the dog to be “ok” during noisy, hectic parties, I told her to provide her dog with a safe space or have her dog stay overnight with a trusted friend or sitter. Why? Because loud noises, new people, and lots of movement in a small space are normal triggers for any dog.
Many parents are experts at setting up environments to help their children feel comfortable. They hire a babysitter for a New Year’s Eve party. They realize engaging in an exciting activity right before bedtime will result in frustration. They know that the playground isn’t the best place to ask children to focus on their math homework. Dog parents need to become just as skilled at employing these types of interventions.
In the world of behavior, triggers are normal. There are of course dogs whose reactions are more intense and require the skills of a professional trainer. But it’s important for humans to realize that a stimulus can trigger any dog. It’s our responsibility to understand how to interact with and care for dogs so they don’t become coils of stress, “ready to misfire,” but can function healthily in the world alongside us.
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.