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— March 12, 2013 —

Icons, Triggers and Impulse Control —
Keys to understanding your dog’s problem behavior. Part 3.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Have you ever walked into a room and forgot why you went in there? Well, that’s pretty much how your dog lives his whole life.

Most people who come to me for training have some very detailed questions. They ask me what their dog could possibly be thinking to do such and such problem behavior. The first thing I have to explain to them is that their dog isn’t really “thinking” about anything before they do it. The majority of problem behaviors that dogs exhibit are simply reactions. I used Sidney as an example at the start of this series because she is a classic example of a dog that reacts badly in pretty specific situations. Seeing Bella in her building causes Sidney, a normally social dog, to act aggressively.

Problem behaviors aren’t the only behaviors that are “Triggered” in our dogs. The basic obedience commands we give are essentially triggers. A well trained dog will Sit on command. He doesn’t have to think about it, he simply reacts. The word “Sit” functions as a Trigger.

If you look back at the 26 Feb article, I mentioned what might happen if someone kicked a soccer ball and it came directly at your head. If you were lucky enough to see it, you would likely raise your arm to block it. This illustrates a Trigger perfectly. You don’t think about it, you don’t debate the best reaction, you just raise your arm and (hopefully) block the ball.

Triggers can act alone or in concert. When we watch a dog that is performing what seems to be a very intricate routine in an obedience show or competition, what we are actually seeing is a string of behaviors that are being Triggered in a sequence. It may be an over-simplification, but this is known as “chaining” behaviors. When we watch this performance, what we are really seeing is a complex chain of simple behaviors.

Another part to this discussion that has to be mentioned is the concept of thresholds. Every dog will have thresholds where behaviors will be Triggered. A great example is the age-old question, “Does he bite?” The answer to that question is almost always yes…if you find the threshold where that behavior will be Triggered. Some dogs will have a very high threshold before a bite would be Triggered, others will react easily, ie. at a lower threshold. In Sidney’s case, the threshold could be determined by evaluating how close Sidney has to be to Bella before she reacts. The distance where she reacts to Bella could be called her threshold.

Thresholds and the reactions they Trigger can be influenced by training. My own dog Gunnar is dog selective and can be dog aggressive. I have mentioned this a few times in previous articles. His big Trigger is when a dog gets too close to his face. If he gets sniffed or licked directly on his muzzle by a new dog, it can Trigger a fighting incident. With lots of training, we have gotten him to a point where he can learn to accept new dogs. With a proper introduction, he has bonded with a number of dogs. Once he is familiar with a new dog, they can approach him and direct contact with his face and muzzle is accepted. Each new dog he meets has to be handled like a new training scenario. His threshold for aggression gets a little higher with each exposure to the new dog until he can accept them in his face. Also, with each new dog, he learns to accept the next new dog a little more quickly. Introductions that used to take weeks, can now be accomplished in a few well-managed meetings. Of course, there are still dogs that will Trigger him. Large, overly excited dogs are pretty much a no-no and any dog that doesn’t have good social skills is out. We don’t even bother to try introducing him to those dogs.

In the example where the soccer ball is suddenly flying at your head: If you were an experienced soccer player, you may not reach up to block the ball. You may instead head-butt the ball back to the playing field. This is a example of training. A person who plays soccer a great deal would be trained, through regular practice, to react differently. Training allows you to manage how you react to Triggers. The same can be true of a dog with problem behaviors. Next week we will explore the idea of how training can affect stimulation level and how stimulation level affects Impulse Control.