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Stress Stacking .. what is it?

Keri Squibb

Stress Stacking in Dogs

Many of us have dogs who seem to suffer, disproportionately, with anxiety or stress and the smallest thing can be a trigger. I have a springer spaniel, Ziggy, whom I often refer to as having mental health issues but in actual fact I am quite convinced most of his issues are stress related. Imagine the following, Ziggy lives with another spaniel and a collie, in the morning at breakfast time, his bowl is placed too close to one of the other dogs bowls. Ziggy is unhappy with this, he has low self esteem and looks anxiously around him before eventually settling down to eat.

We then go for a walk, we have lovely open fields near us but to get there we have to walk down a narrow footpath. Now Ziggy is fearful around strange dogs, he is worse on a lead. Given the opportunity he will give a strange dog a very wide berth rather than pass it by. There are a lot of local dog walkers who use this lane and therefore in this scenario, not only is he on a lead and therefore has no option but walk past the other dog but we have to squeeze past and he is uncomfortably close to this other dog, aswell as being on the lead. He responds by barking aggressively as we pass. Fight or flight automatically kicking in.

We continue with our walk and he enjoys it although he shows his usual avoidance techniques of other dogs when loose in a field and his anxiety is clearly there but he is in control of it.

On the way home, we once again negotiate the narrow lane, if we are lucky we may not pass a dog. Generally we do.

When we get home Ziggy is visibly tired and wants to retire gratefully to his bed. But before doing this he spots a favourite toy on the floor, he instantly tenses up. Ziggy loves his toys, he wants that toy but he is not top dog in our household. Ollie is, and Ollie also loves toys. Ziggy, suddenly tenses up. He growls and snatches the toy and shows genuine anger towards Ollie who at this stage not doing anything other than standing nearby. Why would Ziggy overreact like this? The answer being it’s the final straw for him, he is running on nerves after his start to the day and the toy pushed him over the edge.

This is a simplified version of stress stacking? A number of incidents which gradually fill up Ziggys cup of stresses he can manage. We all have this imaginary cup and we all have different sizes of cup. This is why some of us can cope with everything life throws at us and more and others crumble at seemingly minor set backs. Its no different for dogs and when your dog seems to react to an incident beyond all reasonable understanding its well worth taking a look at what else is going on in your dogs life.

What can you change to reduce stresses? In my case I will often put the dogs in the car and take them somewhere quieter so we don’t have the lane issue every walk. Toys are not left out as they then become ‘resources’ which are valuable to the dogs and can be the source of more stress. Each dog is fed at least 6 foot away from each other. All minor changes but important from Ziggys point of view. He is nearly 10 now, over the years I have tried many things, herbal remedies, plug in calmers,reassurance, Im ashamed to admit to shaking bottles of pebbles to try and stop him barking at other dogs, why would it in hindsight, he is stressed and afraid. Nothing really works and he isn’t going to change now so I have to work with him. We understand him much better now and there is no miracle cure just minor tweaks that help. So tomorrow, when we attend a one off local beach walk where I know there will be A LOT of other dogs, Im  not going to feel guilty that I don’t take Ziggy. Instead, I  will leave him at home where I know he will happily snooze the time away and I will be able to relax with the other 2 dogs knowing that I don’t have to constantly assess what we are walking towards and worrying that Ziggy may find it all too much and lash out.


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1 comment

  • Such an interesting and thought provoking blog post. I’ve never heard of this term before but it makes complete sense. Loved how you explained it.

    Sarah, Ted & Millie (Twilight Bark UK)

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