Today I took a shower with a spider.
It wasn’t like I volunteered for this; I hopped in and was well along in the process of getting clean before I saw it in the shower pan. And this wasn’t a tiny spider – it was a big one. I’d’ say 3″ around or so.
Ok. Maybe it was closer to 1″, including the legs. But it FELT like 3″ when I realized that I was not alone.
I’m not afraid of spiders but I also do not choose to take showers with them. I was particularly unthrilled about the thought of one crawling on me when I shut my eyes to rinse my hair. But I could manage, and anyone watching would not have been aware of the turmoil going on inside of my mind as I kept half an eye on that spider and the rest of my brain on getting done with my shower.
And then my husband unexpectedly opened the bathroom door. I startled, screamed, and am quite lucky I didn’t go through the glass.
My husband has seen me shower before- after 20 years we’re well past any issues there. And I had been showering with that spider for a couple of minutes already so that wouldn’t have caused my reaction. But in my hyper aware state I seriously overreacted, likely risking my health a good deal more than anything that spider could have thought up to do to me.
When we are agitated, we are hyper aware. That internal state of awareness may or may not show on the outside, but the effort to continue on in a normal fashion absorbs most of our capacity.
Now let’s talk about dogs.
Your dog is nervous around crowds. He’s never liked them much, but he is not dangerous; just wary. On this day, you are having a holiday party, so your house is unusually full of people, and your dog is behaving as he normally does; aware but functioning in his private corner of the world.
And then the door behind your dog bangs open, causing your dog to whirl around and almost bite the person who comes through the door and into your house. It was close.
“It came out of nowhere!”
“He loves John; I can’t believe he wanted to hurt him!”
“He was just sitting there quietly, waiting for this opportunity!”
“He’s not a safe dog”.
None of those things are correct. The dog is just a dog, behaving like any mammal under a stressful situation that makes us hyper aware.
The party created a steady source of stress for that dog (a trigger), just like the spider in the shower was a source of stress for me. Not enough to make me leave the shower and not enough to cause the dog to leave the party.
Triggers, things that cause us to be more emotionally aware and on alert, change our arousal and vigilance levels to much higher than normal, and that, in turn, creates the stage for a possible disaster.
Trigger stacking is what happens when multiple triggers come one after the other. Trigger stacking is bad. Trigger stacking causes disasters – no one trigger is enough but in combination….bad things happen.
Triggers stacking can be one low level stressor that goes on for a long time (stuck in a room with a spider for hours), several low level stressors that come one after the other (spider, followed by husband opening the door unexpectedly), or a situation where one trigger ends up being more intense than expected (spider climbing up my arm). Any of those possibilities can create a panicky response – outside the control of the animal. Remember, humans and dogs are both mammals with similar base emotions, so your responses to fear are likely to apply to your dog as well.
Under circumstances where we are hyper alert, things that might have caused a typical startle under normal circumstances now risk a severe overreaction.
If your dog is sensitive and you know it, consider not subjecting him to prolonged stressors, like a holiday party, even if he has managed to behave well in the past. Even social dogs can become fatigued under the excitement of unusual stimulation and a tired dog – either physically or mentally – can make really poor decisions on the spur of the moment. Better to be safe than sorry.
If your dog has a history of nervous or fearful behavior, this warning should be heeded ten times over. Do not subject your nervous dog to triggers over an extended period of time, because a poor outcome is a likely result.
It’s not worth the risk.