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The Perils of Mislabeling Dog-Appropriate Behavior

Unknown trigger stacking can be a leading cause of unwanted dog outbursts.

Key points

  • It's essential to become dog-literate and avoid using misleading labels that can cause problems in dog-dog and dog-human relationships.
  • Case studies show that by paying careful attention to what dogs actually want and need, it's a win-win for the dogs and humans.
  • Dogs show changes in social tolerance and humans must be aware of how these affect their and other dogs.

This essay was written with Boulder-based force-free dog trainer and consultant Mary Angilly.

In response to an essay called “Do Your Dog and You Agree About What You Want Them to Do?” Marc talked with Mary, and they decided to co-author this piece and focus on the sentence: “Assuming the human knows enough about their (and hopefully) other dogs, it's easy to decide whether the human should do something with the dog.” Herein lie two complications: First, how can we accurately assess what dogs want when so many people aren't dog-literate and don’t really know what their dogs want or need? Second, dogs are individuals, and what's appropriate for one dog may not be appropriate for another. Sometimes reframing how someone is describing their dog's behavior and the context in which it's occurring is enough to change and correct their perspective and understanding of what's happening.

Trigger stacking

Before looking at some case studies, it’s important to understand a phenomenon called trigger stacking. Basically, trigger stacking is a toxic accumulation of stress due to exposure to multiple triggers over a period of time that is too short to allow an animal’s reactivity/stress levels to return to normal. Unnoticed trigger stacking is anecdotally one of the primary causes of “outbursts” from companion dogs that Mary has seen while working as a dog trainer and behavior consultant. Below are three case studies of trigger stacking leading to behaviors that aren't the norms for the dogs exhibiting them.

The danger of using labels

Humans like to label things, and in the dog training industry, it often makes it easier to explain behavior or communicate complicated topics. Consistently explaining behavior in generalized terms can be harmful as it can diminish what is actually going on. With that, we encourage you to look at exactly what a dog is doing before labeling or making assumptions. When someone says their dog is “territorial,” they have “separation anxiety,” they’re “dominant," "disobedient," and the like, these terms aren't necessarily helpful, and it's best to ask them to carefully describe the dog's behavior. For example, “territorial” might mean a dog barks at people who come into their home, and upon further information-gathering, “territorial” turns out to mean the dog is afraid of unfamiliar people entering into his space.

When trying to figure out what's really happening, everyone will be best served by looking at what a dog is doing. The best way to know what a dog is thinking or feeling depends on knowing the dog’s body language, personality, and previous history. The following three cases involve a disagreement between a human and a dog—something works for the humans but doesn't work for the dogs.

1. Jack’s playdate gone wrong

While Jack has been known to occasionally guard his toys and food against other dogs, he has a number of dog friends and reliably does well when off-leash with dogs on trails. A few months ago, Jack had a poor experience with another dog on a trail, resulting in a paw injury that required him to be on crate rest for several weeks and unable to get his daily one to two hours of off-leash time. Soon after his crate rest ended, his humans wanted to meet with a friend who recently got a puppy, and they thought it would be good for Jack to have a playdate. When the puppy came into the house, Jack was clearly agitated and stressed and paced around the house.

The humans wanted to catch up with each other, so Jack and the puppy continued to hang out together. After some time, treats came out while both dogs were in the backyard, and Jack bit the puppy. Jack's humans were worried he was becoming an aggressive dog, although he'd previously had hundreds of friendly interactions with a wide variety of dogs. It's likely if Jack wasn’t recovering from a painful paw and lack of exercise, he might not have bitten the puppy. It was out of character.

2. Dean and the dog park

Deciding whether or not to take a dog to a dog park isn't always an easy task. For example, Dean’s humans decided to try out the dog park as an easy way to give Dean some socialization and exercise. During their first visit, Dean played with another similar-sized dog, but as time went on, Dean became increasingly upset (snarling, barking, growling, and lunging) when larger dogs came close to him and then when any dog came close to him.

This happened two more times, after which Dean’s humans were told by someone at the dog park that Dean was “aggressive.” Dean is actually dog-selective and prefers one-on-one playdates with familiar dogs; he was overwhelmed by what was happening around him at the dog park.1 Other instances of mislabeling might include conflating rough-and-tumble fair play with dominance and aggression.

Source: 825545/Pixabay

Dean has a few similar-sized dog friends in the neighborhood and enjoys one-on-one playdates with familiar dogs. However, multiple trips to the dog park have proven to result in reactive behaviors from Dean and should be avoided.

3. Vernon and the vet

Vernon went to the groomer on a Monday—he reportedly “did fine"—but the groomer didn’t elaborate on what that meant. Knowing Vernon’s personality and history, he was likely shut down, and later that week, he had diarrhea. Although Vernon seemed otherwise well, his human decided he should go to the vet.

Vernon is uncomfortable around unfamiliar people in close proximity. While at the clinic, the relief vet whom Vernon didn't know decided to check Vernon’s heart rate, despite Vernon’s being stressed, and Vernon snapped at the vet. The vet was surprised and told Vernon’s human that she should be concerned about his “inappropriate display of dominance” when Vernon was acting defensively out of fear and discomfort and possibly feeling ill. It's essential that veterinarians know what dogs are thinking and feeling, and this situation can be a tricky one, but Vernon wasn't trying to dominate the doctor.2,3

Moving forward

The above stories are a small sample of events that occur regularly with humans and their dogs. Every day, well-meaning people put their dogs into situations, and the dogs are expected to confront various stressors with ease when this isn't realistic, especially if a dog is trigger stacking and the humans don't understand what the dog is feeling.

Dogs have good and bad days, and we have to adjust our actions and expectations accordingly. Dogs are continually telling us how they’re doing, and we must pay close attention to their body language, individual personalities, and previous history/experiences to determine whether they want to do something or not. If there's a disagreement between a dog and a human, it's best to try to figure out what's happening for each to avoid an unwanted situation.

When we pay careful attention to what dogs are telling us and asking of us, it's a win-win for all. Maintaining healthy and positive dog-human relationships simply boils down to recognizing and honoring that there's an ongoing and dynamic social relationship, and it's not always all about us.

Facebook image: Aleksey Boyko/Shutterstock



1) For more information on dogs being selective and how their levels of tolerance change over time see "Does My Dog Love Other Dogs?"

2) Many dogs are not trained to voluntarily cooperate during medical care and veterinarians are in a tough spot in many ways. Many haven't been formally educated in dog behavior so they would not know what warning signs to look for with aggression (see the Canine Ladder of Aggression), and are also dealing with a number of stressors.

3) Dogs with sensitivities to unfamiliar people and/or to handling should go to a fear-free certified or low-stress veterinarian/practice and work with a certified trainer to prevent instances like these, which will make for more pleasant veterinary visits for everyone, the dog, their human, and the veterinary staff.

Bekoff, Marc. When Dogs Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness. (Fair play requires dogs to stick to mutually agreed upon codes of conduct.)

_____. Let Your Dog Tell You If They Want to Go to a Dog Park.

_____. Veterinarians Must Know What Dogs Are Thinking and Feeling. (Animal doctors need to be aware of what their patients are telling them.)

_____. Dog Training: Blending Science With Individual Personalities. (Facile one-size-fits-all solutions ignore the complexities of what's happening.)

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