I learned a new term this week: “trigger-stacking.” I wasn’t attending a professional conference or catching up on my journals. I heard the phrase from a veterinary behaviorist.
Six months ago we adopted Clifford, a three-year-old Australian Shepherd who had been a stray in rural New Jersey. Let’s just say the adjustment has been very rough.
During the three-hour drive from New Jersey, he draped himself across my lap, instantly claiming me as his ”person.” But he has what the Aussie rescue groups euphemistically call “a strong guardian instinct,” causing him to be overly protective of his turf, his food, his toys, and…me. So from the moment he entered our house, he treated my husband as an enemy invader.
Whenever my husband crossed a threshold into a room I was in, Clifford launched a canine air-missile strike. We began to feel under siege, on constant alert for the next attack.
Fast forward six months. Thankfully, through a combination of medication prescribed by the veterinary behaviorist and lots of counter-conditioning—which derives from the same learning principles underpinning the treatment approaches I use for anxiety—we now have a much more relaxed dog. I’ve stopped my Google searches for “Farms that Take Unadoptable Animals,” and Clifford has gradually been forming a tentative bond with my husband. We’re cautiously optimistic.
But because behavior modification isn’t linear, the aggressive displays we’ve been working so hard to eliminate will occasionally resurface. And even though I should know better, I was disheartened one day last week to observe a spike in Clifford’s territorial barking along with his refusal to come back into the house after he went out in the yard while I was at work. He stood on the deck for two hours, nervously casting glances at my husband, who tried to lure him back inside with a smorgasbord of tasty treats. Even steak couldn’t entice him.
After reviewing the behavioral log I keep to remind myself of Clifford’s progress (a practice I heartily recommend, by the way, if you’re working on changing your own behavior), the cause of his regression became clear: trigger-stacking.
I identified three major triggers, each of which individually heightened Clifford’s arousal and, cumulatively, pushed him over the edge: 1) A stressful visit to the vet for a vaccination the previous day; 2) Loud noises overhead while workmen repaired our roof; and 3) Repeated invasion of his territory while my husband walked in and out of his office moving books.
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. But at the time, I had trouble convincing myself we weren’t back to square one.
When you experience an uptick in the anxiety or compulsive behaviors you’ve been working hard to manage, you might assume a setback means you haven’t made progress. Not so. A bad day at work, a fight with a partner, a sick child, a sleepless night—any one of those triggers might be manageable alone but in combination might just be too much to handle without reverting to the coping behaviors you’ve been trying to change.
So when you suffer a setback, don’t view it as a relapse. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve been facing more triggers than usual. Cut yourself some slack—but don’t make excuses to justify avoidance–by taking on lower intensity challenges, if necessary, to keep yourself from slipping back into old habits.
And, then, start back where you left off, as we did with Clifford. For a week, he continued to balk at coming inside whenever my husband let him out in the yard. But a few days ago, the sight of his leash brought him back in the house. And, for the first time, they walked around the block together.
Entertaining can be stressful for me—not because I worry about cooking an excellent meal or making the house look spotless but because our Australian Shepherd Freddie is a handful when strangers are on his turf. And to him, everyone except the very immediate family is a stranger with dubious intentions.
Recently our neighbors were over for dinner. As usual, Freddie barked. A lot. I gave him a bone to chew and sent him to his crate to quiet him. After awhile, he’d settled enough for me to let him out to lie by my feet at the table.
Dogs are very put off by direct eye contact. They find it threatening, especially if they’re fearful, like Freddie. So I always instruct visitors not to look at him.
But telling someone not to do something often has a paradoxical effect. Just think about the last time you told yourself not to eat dessert, or not to check your email, or not to send a text to someone you desperately want to hear from.
So of course as soon as I told my neighbor, “Don’t look at him!” he immediately turned and locked eyes with Freddie.
After the frenzied barking had subsided and Freddie had gone back to his bone, I was able to think clearly enough to realize my approach had been all wrong. Instead of saying, “Don’t look at Freddie” I should have said, “Look out the window” or even, “Close your eyes!”
The idea of replacing one action with another is a behaviorial strategy used to break habits. Substituting an undesired behavior (such as nail-biting, smoking, hair-pulling, or skin-picking) with a benign one is using a competing response to short-circuit the habit.
An effective competing response should be: 1) readily available, 2) inconspicuous, and 3) incompatible with the undesired behavior. For example, someone with trichotillomania (hair-pulling) might keep a fidget toy on the desk to use while working at the computer at home but might prefer to clench her fists to ride out the urge to pull at work. Or a smoker trying to quit might chew gum instead.
Trainers use competing behaviors all the time to stop dogs from barking and jumping up. When Freddie and I are out for a walk and see another dog across the street, I tell him to “Heel” and “Watch me” to divert his attention and keep him from going into overdrive. When he and Baxter greet me on my return from a day at the office, I throw toys for them to fetch so they won’t get muddy paw prints on my work clothes.
Come to think of it, I should try the “Watch me” command the next time we have company for dinner. Unaware I’m talking to the dog, the guests will look at me instead of making eye contact with Freddie. Problem solved.
My Australian Shepherd Freddie has much to commend him. He’s loyal and loving to his family. He doesn’t chew up underwear, move pillows from room to room, or snatch sandwiches from the kitchen counter like my Golden Retriever Calvin used to do. He’ll turn on a dime and come when he’s called, even off-leash. He walks jauntily by my side without pulling. And he’s incredibly smart—bilingual, in fact. The repertoire of commands he understands both verbally and by hand signals alone includes not only the useful basics (sit, stay, heel, come, leave it, down) but also many tricks I’ve taught him to keep us both busy. He can spin (clockwise), twirl (counterclockwise), sashay sideways, shake, salute, wave, march in step with me, backup, roll over, play dead, speak, play peek-a-boo, balance a treat on his nose and catch it, grasp an umbrella between his paws, weave through my legs, jump over and crawl under a bar, fetch a toy from another room by name, and take a bow.
But Freddie’s intelligence (along with an acute hypervigilence, endemic to herding breeds like his, to every sound and sudden movement) also makes him hard to live with at times. He barks. At everything. Incessantly.
Most annoying is his reaction to the TV. It’s impossible to watch a show when he’s in the room because he runs up to the screen and, in his most menacing big dog voice, tries to scare off the intruders. He gets really worked up when he sees fighting or hears raised voices. And since my husband and I favor shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Homeland, with plenty of violence and bad guys, Freddie is always on his guard.
You’d think I’d be able to train him to lie at our feet for the duration of an episode. Believe me, I’ve tried. I tell him to “chill” (which he’s been taught means “stretch out and rest your head on your paws”) and toss him treats for being quiet. It works, for a while. But as soon as the plot heats up, so does Freddie.
The problem has gotten much worse since our Black Friday purchase of a 55” TV. It’s twice as big with a far sharper picture than our previous model. If the escalation of his barking is any indication, Freddie feels even more threatened by the outsized images on the new screen.
I wish he would curl up and sleep peacefully next to me on the couch like our other dog Baxter. Wouldn’t it nice to be able to kick back and relax with two warm, furry, quiet canines at my side? But since exciteablility is part of Freddie’s temperament, I doubt I’ll ever be completely successful in training him not to bark at the TV. So I’m coming to terms with not having the dog of my fantasies and learning to live with the real one in my house.
When you’re stuck dealing with a situation or person you’re not entirely happy with, the best option is to find a way to accept it. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes this as “the challenge of mindfulness.” Rather than trying to force your experience (or a difficult spouse, coworker, or pet) to be different, “be present for your experience as it is.”
I can’t quite muster the equanimity to tolerate Freddie’s barking throughout a TV show. It’s just too hard to hear the dialogue over the noise. So I’ve come up with a way to accept him and also enjoy my TV viewing.
I put him in his crate with a bone to occupy him. It works for both of us.
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