Monday, March 20, 2017

Fear, Anxiety, "Stress", and Trigger Stacking

I started this post months ago, and then got distracted, but I feel like it is something important and not talked about enough.

It's not really recognized well among dog training resources, but I think that there is a difference
Everything is a little bit scary
between fear and anxiety.  Certainly they are linked together - how often do we talk about dogs with separation anxiety as being "afraid of their owners leaving"?  While I am not sure right now that they are one and the same, I am having a tough time conceptualizing why I feel that way other than to say that while Ida has certain definite fears, at home she just seemed to be generally "worried".  Unable to fully relax unless she was sleeping, but there was no readily identifiable or specific reason for it.  Wikipedia indicates that anxiety has a component of internal conflict, so maybe that is it.  Maybe, being at home Ida "knows" that she is safe, but she still has those nagging "what if" moments.  Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing a whole lot.  But I think for some dogs there is an area between "fine" and "fearful", a kind of generalized worry or anxiety that we just don't talk about because it doesn't noticeably affect the dog's behaviour in ways that Joe Blow Owner would think is a problem (or maybe just not a problem worth fixing).

While "trigger stacking" is talked about some, recovery times are rarely discussed.  Time-frames longer than a single outing or day are rarely explicitly addressed, which is probably why it took me so long to recognize Ida's long-term trigger stacking.  For her, it wasn't so noticible over a single day, but her stress builds up incrementally over the course of multiple days, or even weeks.  Sometimes it happened almost invisibly; she would be completely fine/normal inside the house, but would get worse and worse outside of the house.  Especially since, before medications at least, there were so many things that were likely adding to her stress (even just things like the cat showing interest in her food!) that I think now were likely adding to her stress, going forward it is going to be important for us to regularly take a step back and take a look at the all of the pieces in the puzzle, not just the most obvious ones.

I really noticed the long-term trigger stacking when we started taking two classes per week.  That meant long car rides, and two classrooms full of strange dogs.  Several days in between was not enough for her to recover; even though she acted fine at home in the back yard and in the house, her fuse got shorter and shorter. Seeing Ida so stressed out just sitting on the front step that she wouldn't eat hot dogs was heartbreaking and is really what kickstarted this blog.  Even now, I don't know if we'll ever be comfortable enough with car travel to compete in agility, but at the very least she should be able to be comfortable around her own home!

I don't think trigger stacking, and especially latent trigger stacking (where the stimuli has been removed but the dog is still feeling the emotion effects), is explained to owners enough - or at all, really. I think the end result is a owners that put their dogs in stressful situations on a daily basis in order to counter condition it before the dog has full recovered from the last exposure; the dogs who take longer than that to recover don't actually get the chance, and do not get better - or get worse.