Trigger happy dogs

Flippin Eck
Our dogs are who they are too, living in our modern world is not necessarily so easy for them.

Over many years I’ve lived and worked with many dogs, from easy over friendly with every one and anything living, nervous worriers, part feral, and reactive/trigger stackers, my Flippin Eck being one of those, sometimes getting herself stacked up by the environment, bikes, strange dogs, or strange people.

Of course there are many situations where dogs need to be on lead, for safety or being the rules of a venue. These are the situation where dogs that get triggered feel more insecure, their not in control, the old fight flight option has been taken from them.

These dogs can very often settle on social walks with the right set of dogs all travelling in the same direction wide paths dogs gradually let of lead as they settle. You may find introduced carefully they may enjoy the company of a walking companion after some amount of parallel walking before off lead on a neutral walk, handlers walking on focus forward to start and not walking in. Some dogs build friendships this way, but they don’t have to no more than we do.

I have walked Eck with groups of from 6 to 25 dogs. I choose the right walks for her to feel safe, wide paths, if there’s forestry either side all the better there’s outside interest on each side, dogs aren’t so likely to be focused on each other.

I’m not saying its necessary for them to walk with other dogs to have a good life, what I am saying is they may sound off especially on lead but they are not bad dogs, she has certainly enjoyed these walks. Big BUT on our walk we have been lucky enough to have been part of a group of dog aware people and an established group of dogs and handlers.

So no crowding, no handing out food, no focusing on or interfering with natural dog interactions, no one dog getting toys thrown, dogs moving through the countryside enjoying each other the mud, water, squirrels, nature and the chasing each other or just the leaves through the woods.

Short video of Eck on one of the walks 12 seconds

Eck got to know Ozzy the Doberman in the video as a youngster, she is about 7/8 months younger than him he’s a super temperament. Eck had not seen him for possibly 18 months to two years until this walk once bonded how ever long the gap, they feel at home with old friends, just like we do.

Little things you notice that give the game away on who lives under the mask, as they all come up from the water and move along, Eck’s first move is close to my right hand side under cover to assess the way ahead, as it happened a couple of the others turned back just to check on there handlers, no problem but interesting to see they all took the straight line ahead after coming up from the river

Eck was the only one to head to the right and under my arm, the others taking the straightest route forward. Admittedly I stuck out like a sore thumb in bright pink, hardly country colours, just happened to look like rain when we started out and it was the only light weight shower proof jacket I had in the van left in from a charity walk.

Reactive/trigger happy dogs have different hats.  Different situations spark different reactions. If one of these same dogs that Eck is running with, was seen across a field or walking up ahead towards her on a path, on a different day, the initial response would be high alert, stepping up the first two stacking steps just on sight.

Once there is recognition they come down one step, its not as simple as well they just need to walk with more dogs then,  what has to be thought about in this situation is the body language and pheromones of the other dog,  who has there paws on the ground floor on approach, and is giving out vibes of recognition “we’re on the same team mate” “I know you’re OK” “I know you” “needn’t get ya knickers in a twist”  Who knows what communication is going on.

I think there are different types of reactivity, some could be linked to different life stages.

1) youngsters, adolescence the spooky teens, that’s a different situation, had a few of those for re homing in the past, already labelled aggressive, usually they have been between 7 months and 16 sometimes 20 months, and mild forms in some in old age, probably linked to dementia, or changes in hearing and sight, nerves can play a part here too, just as they do with elderly people.

2) Different states maybe caused through trauma or related to a life experience.

3) Genetic predisposition, live on their wits high inbuilt survival.

Getting triggered
Eck’s had me on the floor on a few occasions in the past, once at the sight of the back end of a dog walking away, so a reaction to a dogs bum, took the skin off my knees (a gravel car park) and then repeated the whole process before my scabby knees had had time to heal
Her legs used to shoot out side ways like stabilisers, it was them that sent you flying, as she appeared to grow five inches, hair on end from the occiput to the top two inches of her tail, a look any hedgehog would be proud of.

I’ve worked with her and others in the past, away from any distraction at first teaching the cue “turn” as I turned in a 1/2 circle food on the nose and reward/reinforce, working from both sides.
Then when we’ve reached the point of giving the cue “turn” and their turning already, good response, I change to some times reward/reinforce, just on the start of the turn, some times on a full circle, some times a 1/2 turn.

Out in the world, events bite you on the bum, the unexpected happens, and dogs that get triggered like my Eck, and others, can go over thresh hold in seconds, fast stackers (supermarket heroes) .

I think that the more background training and associations we can build to help them tackle the world the better, that doesn’t mean they can always listen of course, it depends on how triggered they are on any given occasion, their emotional state, how much stacking has already started.

With dogs that have been given good grounding, you stand a far better chance of redirecting them when there is a potential storm up ahead.

I then use the turn when I need to move my dog to a comfortable distance from a trigger, or to turn and go in the opposite direction, where I can’t move out a good distance from an oncoming dog, I may then turn and walk slower in the opposite direction, depending on state/height of arousal, to avoid walking in face to face and the inevitable stacking up to bursting point.

This allows the other dog to catch up (assuming its minding its own business, and its just my dog that’s likely to get it’s knickers in a twist) and at the point of arriving we’ll turn again and walk on briskly in our original direction, the brisk movement walking on forward helps to bring them down again too.

In different situations, wide path for instance, where I’ve been able to move off the path for others to pass, I have on occasions met some nice people, seeing I’m working with my dog to help her deal with their dogs passing, I’ve had a few lovely calming for the dogs conversations.

Once past I’ve called a thank you if they have taken the trouble to put their dogs on lead and give us as wide a berth as possible, and in these situations where we have stood a distance and talked, the dogs have then settled in each others company, albeit a good distance apart, and you can see them come down in height as they relax and realise there is no threat to them, picking up a link from our conversation that says, friend not foe, your not under threat.

However on the ball you are, proactive, eyes in the back of your head, life bites you on the bum when you least expect it, however disappointed, embarrassed, or any other feelings we may have when that happens, our dogs are not out to make us feel that way, their reaction in that moment is genuine, they are responding to their natural survival instincts.

Some of these dogs would no doubt survive if they lived in the natural world and had to live on their wits as their ancestors did.

One thing that every one needs to be conscious about, is that nobody is inadvertently cuing their dog to trigger up, tight leads, stiffening up when the handler has a visual on a potential issue, if in doubt just move away, even if that means crossing the road or going through a gate, your just looking out for your dog.

There may be many reasons why some dogs are more reactive/triggered. Don’t we just love to have a reason.

Children that are nurtured in very stable families are not all identical, we accept that as brothers and sisters one may be shy, one maybe a handful parents cant take their eyes off for a minute, the confidence of superman, one may need lots of support and encouragement, no belief in themselves.

Our dogs are who they are too, living in our modern world is not necessarily easy for them.

Why do so many dogs now have issues, and why has becoming a behaviour consultant become so popular/lucrative

Many years ago, latch key dogs were not a problem, dogs often met their owners coming home from work or even went with them and came back with them. I’m talking years back my parents & grandparents younger years. I heard many stories of dogs seen waiting outside factory gates and round the dock yards waiting for their person to finish work.

Looking back, in my life time (granted I’m pretty ancient) I remember you couldn’t walk to the park or a shop without meeting loose local, laid back, well balanced dogs on the way, they were as much part of the local community as any one.

Pups would have learned their social skills, from these natural teachers that spoke the same language, with daily practice once old enough to be taken out.

When I look back now I think my mother was quite responsible at a time when it was the norm for dogs to have a lot of freedom, our dog was always accompanied, but still met and interacted with other dogs in lots of space with lots of freedom.

It was safer then the roads were quiet, that way of life couldn’t happen now, I can still remember one of the local dogs, a large brindle mixture, loved to lay in the sun in the middle of the road in the summer, cars would drive carefully round him.

Things have changed so much, as things always will, some for the good but some not so good, we live in a world that has become very anti dog.

The transition through those years has seen a change to puppy socialising classes in halls, without those well laid back, well balanced, natural teachers that speak the lingo.

Modern day trainers often preach theory without ever having seen the other side and the changes that have passed down the line.

There’s a lot of miss information past down too.
Something that bugs me that has been drummed into new trainers is how hard and heavy handed trainers used to be, before the launch of the clicker, in the UK that was the mid 90s, I found early use of the clicker for which I owe thanks to Kay Laurence.

Much has changed and moved forwards again since the early clicker days.

This miss information I believe came about through the obedience world, the word obedience makes you cringe. This was pretty much the main competitive sport along with working trials, very much military style training, ridged and harsh handling often the norm in obedience and working trail training, and seen because these were the sports on show.

Even the style of teaching was to ridicule and send handlers off in tears, really!

BUT that is not how everyone trained, it is not how everyone treated animals in there care.
In all my years working with animals I can honestly say people I have worked for and with, with horses and dogs, and the circle of friends over those years have put their animals welfare first, cruel or harsh treatment would not be tolerated.

A video of training using games from the 1940’s. No games are not new, things turn full circle don’t they, then they’re brought out as if just invented.

Just as dogs have evolved from their ancestors over hundreds of years, I think these many years of changes has to have had some effect on them as a species. Even comparing the appearance of breeds now and the same breeds 50/100 years back, some bare little resemblance.

Just as we now have many issues with obesity and people who are now either not capable, or can’t muster the energy for physical work when it needs doing, the do as little as you can, for as much as you can get attitude that’s become the norm.

What will it be like in 50/60 years from now I wonder?

I’ll look down from my cloud to see if any lessons have been learned or will there even be dogs in peoples lives?

Weak internet has meant gradual update of missing paragraphs.

One thought on “Trigger happy dogs

  1. Thankyou for this Iris. Really useful publication which helps explain the reactivity in our dogs and gives some sensible advice on how to cope with them on walks.
    A lot of us are road walking as driving to walk our dogs not encouraged so this is really relevant. I agree with this wholeheartedly!

    Liked by 1 person

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