Trigger Stacking – It Adds Up

Your alarm never went off.  You are running late so decide to grab breakfast on the road.  You spill coffee on your new suit.  You get to work and see someone has parked in your reserved spot and the rest of the lot is full.  You have to park at the pay garage two blocks away.  At work, you find the two people working on a project did not complete their parts over the weekend.  The project is due the next day. You work through lunch and stay late to complete their part of the project while your coworkers go out for an extended lunch with a friend and sneak out early.  As you are heading home, your vehicle’s “check engine” light starts to flash.  You get home to see toys scattered all over the drive way and side walk.  Your Home Owners’ Association person greets you with a warning that the toys were left out too long today.  You are at the end of your rope.  Now your child comes dashing, naked, out of the front door.  You scream for her to get back in the house. Your stress level is extremely high and you just lost it.

man person face portrait

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Normally each of these events, if confronted with individually or with sufficient recovery time between, would cause stress but you would be able to cope.  What if you did not get a chance to recover from these triggers and they kept, building, stacking, your blood boils and…

This is often called “Trigger Stacking.”  Even if the individual stressors do not elicit (trigger) a reaction, they are still building emotional stress.  Stress is stacking and tolerance levels drop and each stress builds until…  Let’s apply this to a common pet: the cat. (And the same happens to dogs).

You go to the shelter and adopt a new cat.  The cat is supposed to be good with dogs and children.  However, within hours of being home, the cat badly scratches your youngest on the face.   Were you paying attention to what was going on or happening?  What stresses were stacking?  Let’s look at Kitty.

Kitty has gone from a home into a shelter (big stress).  While at the shelter, there were sights, sounds and loads of things she was not used to (lots of stress with no ability to escape the stress in the environment).   You adopt the cat and shove her in a box for a car ride (stress).  At home, you dump her in the middle of the living room where your puppy barks at her (stress).   You older child brings over friends to see the new cat (stress).  They spend the afternoon playing loudly in the house (stress).  Your mother-in-law comes for dinner and fusses all over kitty as the poor thing tries to eat and rest (stress).   Just before bed, your younger child races up to kitty to give a good-night kiss (stress).  Cat hisses and smacks the child, claws extended, in the face.  Next day, stressed kitty is back at the shelter.  Step back and look at all the stress stacked upon the poor animal and it is no wonder kitty scratched the child.

The same thing happens with our dogs and other pets.  A little stress at a time with recover between, they may handle better.  However, one thing after another after another may be too much. Then there is a growl, snap, bite, etc.

Stress stacking up and triggering a reaction happens to us and our pets.

Learn to understand subtle signs your pet is stressing.  Pets rarely scratch or bite without warning.  Often there are early signals that stress is adding up long before we hear a growl or a hiss. Watch for stressors stacking up and intervene before an undesired response is triggered.


Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, a published author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.

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